Don’t Deprive Kids Of Risk

let kids take risks, don't overprotect,

jessicareeder’s flickr photostream

I publicly admitted to letting my teen take risks that would make most parents shudder. I’m not talking about the month long backpacking trip my 16-year-old took with his older brother and a friend. Nope, I’m talking about letting him meet up with middle-aged guys he talks to online.

The circumstances were perfectly suited to advancing his maturity as well as his skills. But to most parents, that decision marks me as a very bad mother. I’ll take that risk. Parenting has a lot to do with drawing the line between safe and unsafe. And then there’s that pesky line between good and bad.

It found it easier to see absolutes when my kids were babies. Bottle or breast, free play or playpen, guiding or scolding. The choices seemed easy. As they got older I didn’t lose my cherished parenting philosophies and obnoxiously healthy dietary scruples, but I did relax into the gray area. Some would say I’ve gotten too relaxed.

Every day I watch as parents pile their cars with their darling backpack-laden children, then transport them all the way to the end of the driveway where they sit, engines idling, until the school bus arrives. The reverse process takes place in the afternoon. These kids are spared more than the exercise required to get from house to curb. Presumably they’re also kept safe from potential child abduction. I don’t know if this is the case in your neighborhood but it’s a standard practice around here, even though I live in a rural township so small that it doesn’t have a single traffic light. (It’s rumored we may get lines painted on the streets.)

Despite the pastoral beauty of our area, kids rarely play outside. Clearly their parents are quite a bit more cautious than I am. Apparently this is a major trend. With the very best intentions kids are kept indoorswatched closely, even monitored. But why?

According to How to Live Dangerously by Warwick Cairns, “stranger danger” is so vastly overblown that you’d have to leave your child outside (statistically speaking) for about 500,000 years before he or she would be abducted by a stranger.

Violence against kids has markedly decreased and the overall crime rate continues to plummet. A teen is three times safer today than a teen in 1979. Sure, there was no Internet in the 70’s but online, the real danger to kids tends to be peer harassment. A larger danger? Kids who have no experience with real challenges.

Kids require escalating responsibility as well as escalating risk in order to grow toward a healthy adulthood. The common practice of delaying risk (and often responsibility as well) stems from the best motivations: love, concern for their safety, interest in staying closely involved. But today’s highly cautious approach to parenting actually inhibits a young person’s healthy development, according to Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive by resilience expert Michael Ungar. It can result in young people who are overly anxious or who take unnecessarily dangerous risks. It can also leave them unprepared for adulthood.

The decisions I make for my family probably aren’t the ones you make for yours. I give my kids the go-ahead to build spud cannons in the name of science but I wouldn’t dream of giving them non-organic celery. I encourage them to join online special interest forums but abhor movies with gratuitous violence. It’s not easy to keep looking at where we draw the line, but just like you, I’ll risk anything for my kids.

13 thoughts on “Don’t Deprive Kids Of Risk

  1. Parents of teens can and should take a few more risks (or believed risks) than a parent of a toddler. That said, parents of toddlers need to let the toddler be toddler risky. Is that French fry too hot? Let them touch it instead of taking it away. They will learn to be cautious and to heed mom’s warning.


    • All I know is that we would just cringe at hearing our mother yell out the front door at night that it was time to come inside. No matter how far away we were up to that point in the day, we had better at least be on the block in ear shot when she yelled out for us. That was pretty much 4 – 8 years old for me. We were never ever home except to sleep get cleaned up eat and go. And that’s the way our parent’s liked it, and expected it. If we were hanging around too much… they would get irritated, and just maybe think up some chores for us to do.


  2. This is a great reminder. I’m definitely guilty of being a “Safety Dad” too often… taking the cage off our woodstove at home was a big step for me, but now my 5 year old is in charge of lighting the fire… I’ve found that even when he’s got a minor burn, it’s a lesson that I’ll never have to teach, and he surely won’t tough the stove again. Bravo for writing this good quality parenting content. Will subscribe for more. 🙂


  3. As we drive along a very busy main road into the city, we see five year olds on scooters, taking themselves alone to school. This is in a place where there are child predators known to be scouting out. But even forgetting that, cars can have accidents. I’ve also seen people leave their toddlers alone and unsupervised in a mall play area while they go shopping. So I don’t see much coddling going on in my neck of the woods, and personally I think children need better protecting. Letting them blow up potatoes or light a stove is one thing, that’s about skill and self-management. But alot can go wrong in this world with all its machinery and heavy traffic and millions of people. I let my child play in a dangerous environment I know they can manage – but I won’t let them walk there alone.

    But then, I am overly cautious. I know how only a fraction of crime is reported to the police, let alone reported to the media. I fully agree with allowing children to take responsibility, but I support those parents watching over their children until the school bus comes.


    • It must be different in different areas. I’m all about necessary safeguards. Walking kids to school or waiting with them for the bus may very well be necessary. I just don’t see the necessity of driving a child to the end of the driveway. Sitting on their butts in the car, then on the butts on the bus, then in their desks all day doesn’t sound much like childhood.


  4. When my daughter was about 12 she wanted to do Revolutionary War reenactment. We found a group at an event at Fort Frederick (Maryland) that would let her join without me, as I didn’t share that interest. I talked to the members for quite a while and liked them. I took her to a couple of daytime events with them, and she had a great time and good things to say about the people. And then came an overnight campout, which she very much wanted to attend. I took her and left her and then went home and had an anxiety attack. Who were these strange men and women I had left my daughter alone with at night? But she always had good judgment and liked them, and they had been very kind to her. Of course when I went to get her in the morning she was having a grand time and was excited about all the things she had learned, as well as being very entertained by a belching contest the men in the different encampments had held. After that she stayed overnight with them for several events and 14 years later she recalls her time in the group as a highlight of her childhood.


  5. I let my daughter do things on her own while I watch from afar (like climb ladders at the play ground) that make my mother cringe. I want her to learn to handle herself and her body confidently. She needs to know how to gauge risk. Without that skill she will likely end up with more sever injuries in her life than the occasional scrape of bruise (or heaven forbid a broken bone). But I do feel the social stigma when I let her play in our backyard unsupervised (she’s 3 and a half) or play with older neighbor children only intermittently supervised..


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