I was at a child care meeting last week, and the topic of healthy risk taking came up in our discussions. I have also read many blogs and professional articles recently on this topic; it certainly is a child development “buzz” right now.
So what is healthy risk taking and why is it important? Children of all ages need the opportunity to experience safe and healthy risks. This is the way that humans learn about decision making, and also natural consequences. For a young child that risk might be saying “no” to a parent, jumping off of a step, or swinging a little higher. For older children it may be walking home alone, or taking public transit by themselves. As children mature, and venture into those teen years, they are bombarded with “opportunities” to take risks – but if those teens have not had the opportunity to do “risk assessment” for themselves, and to experience the positive and negative aspects of taking risks – how will they know how to handle “risky opportunities”? As adults we need to make decisions all the time, and some of those decisions involve personal risk (travel, new jobs, moving, are all common potentially “risky” choices). Those that know me, know I am pretty risk adverse when it comes to children, but after nearly twenty years of parenting and working with children, I have come to realize that providing a completely risk free environment is not BETTER for children. If you visited my child care program, you would see an environment that is pretty low risk in most ways, but in other regards children are given the opportunity to test their boundaries – literally in some cases! In my professional life I have worked in both the insurance and financial sectors – businesses that are all about risk management. When a bank or insurance company takes a “risk” on a client, they look at the facts and weigh the probability of risk, and the consequences of risk. In no circumstance can a bank give a loan that is without risk, nor can an insurance company provide an insurance policy that will never result in a claim. There is a cost-benefit analysis that guides the decision-making, the goal is to mitigate intolerable risk, and we do this every day in our own lives. Children need to do this as well; it is part of human development.
So why is risk taking such a “hot topic” right now? One of the biggest reasons, especially in Canada and the United States, is the shepherding of children through every aspect of their lives, with no opportunity to experience safe risks, to build those critical decision-making skills. Children in the past twenty to thirty years have increasingly become isolated from risk…activities are scheduled, children are driven door to door, friends vetted and screened, every second of time accounted for and pre-approved by parental units. When parents cannot pre-schedule an activity, electronic devices are handed out to provide “babysitting”. Gone are the days of kids disappearing for the day on neighbourhood adventures, knowing to return home when their tummies rumbled, or when the street lights came on. Very few children in the twenty-first century head off to the corner store to buy milk for dinner, or spend their hard earned change on penny candy. In the community where I have raised my children, we live far from any “corner store”, no public buses run within 40 km of our home – some of the few “risk activities” that urban and suburban children may have the opportunity to experience are well removed from our kids. In traditional cultures youth have always been given “coming of age” tasks that involve risk taking and decision making. Fifty years ago “risk taking” was listening to rock and roll music, or, if you were a teenage girl, wearing pants with a zipper in the front! Really! Those that know me know I like to rant sometimes (thank-you Rick Mercer for making “rants” a thing people like me can do and label), so here is a bit of a rant. It ties into my theme of Blogging for BETTER, so don't worry, it has a purpose!
Recently a youth at one of our local high schools was suspended for face make up on casual day. My response to the suspension initially was, “Hey, that seems a bit draconian.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how important it was that we recognize his actions as “safe risk taking”. Just to understand the background, this is a uniformed high school that periodically allows the students to wear “casual” non-uniform attire. I’m pretty sure the school policy does not prohibit face make up, or creative attire on casual day, but I understand that administrators do make up the rules as they go along (which I do not agree with, but that’s a whole other rant!), and they did choose to enforce this “rule” and suspend the student when he refused to take off the make-up. My take on this situation is that this young man was engaging in a rite of passage in the form of safe risk taking. He clearly was challenging authority, and also taking some risk with his peer group. Did he suffer a consequence? Yes he did. Will it help him make decision in future? Quite likely. So it’s all good, right? Yes and no. Personally I see no reason why he should have been asked to remove the make up at all. Is there a school policy against make up? Against creative attire? Then why have “casual day” at all? It clearly is uniform day, even when it’s NOT uniform day! I heard comments about the “face paint” being disrespectful. To who? Another comment I saw alluded to a famous shooting in the U.S. involving face paint done in this style. Ok people, this is just silly – he was having fun, testing boundaries. Anyone own leather gloves? Well you better be careful because we all know you are a criminal, quite likely a murderer, I’ve watched TV, I’ve seen all those bad people who wear leather gloves, they are all up to no good! Could the administrative team at school have addressed this better? Yes, I think so. You would think the concept of dealing respectfully with children and youth, especially teens, in order to get respect would have been part of the training for such a leadership role? Why not just have a conversation ASKING him to remove the make-up, but make it his choice, not some draconian policy pulled from the dark ages (take that off or else)? Far better to make a clear statement to the students that those individual ideas are important, but ask for the students to refrain from turning “casual day” into a “costume day”, politely, respectfully. As a parent I would be thrilled that my child’s risk taking involved this type of thing, instead of the 100 or so much worse scenarios I could think of. When we penalize kids for safe risk taking, are we driving them to do other types of risk taking that are not safe, but are easier in the sense that they can be more secretive? It is a primal human need to take some risk; it is part of our development process. So how is this related to Blogging for BETTER? It is about reminding us, as “grown-ups” that safe risk taking is part of growing up, it helps us to learn great skills that will carry us through life. It’s also about treating children and youth as individuals, with feelings, ideas, and self- esteem – thinking about how we can support them to express themselves and their ideas, how we can help them to form their identity in a respectful, caring, thoughtful way. It’s about guiding children and youth on how to make decisions, on how to do that “risk assessment” analysis. And to think about whether by removing “safe risk taking”, are we creating a situation where less safe and desirable risks will be sought to fill this very human need?
Here’s a link to the CTV news interview with the student: