Guiding Your Children Towards Purposeful Risk-Taking
No matter how much parents try, many kids may progressively show curiosity about risky behavior as they grow into adolescence. It’s in their nature. In fact, the success of the human species surely owes much to the individuals who took purposeful risks, like harnessing fire. On the other hand, those who engaged in reckless behavior—like jumping off cliffs to test if they could fly—never made the cut in the human gene pool.
Adolescent expert and professor of psychology Laurence Steinberg says, “Risk-taking increases between childhood and adolescence as a result of changes in the brain’s socio-emotional system leading to increased reward-seeking, especially in the presence of peers. Risk-taking declines between adolescence and adulthood because of changes in the brain’s cognitive control system—changes which improve an individual’s capacity for self-regulation. The differing timetables of these changes make mid-adolescence a time of heightened vulnerability to risky and reckless behavior.”
Among the many risky behaviors in which modern-day youth engage, these are the most prevalent:
· Behavior that leads to violence or injury
· Unsafe sexual behavior
· Alcohol, substance, and tobacco use
· Unsafe driving or riding
· Poor self-care, like unhealthy eating, inadequate sleep, insufficient physical activity, and excessive social media and screen time
To reduce these risks, Active Parenting founder Michael H. Popkin offers these strategies:
1. Build character and develop skills in your children (teach them how to say no).
2. Build strong relationships with your children.
3. Talk persuasively about the risks.
4. Filter negative influences in your children’s lives.
Of course, the most important one is 5. Be a positive role model for your children.
Not all risk-taking is bad, though. There is a big difference between utterly senseless behavior and taking worthwhile, meaningful risks. Moreover, positive risk-taking is essential for youth to develop a sense of self, courage, and self-esteem.
“What’s needed,” says parenting author Stephen Biddulph, “is something that will engage the spirit of [our youth]…to pull [them] into some creative effort or passion that gives [their] life wings. Many of the things parents have nightmares about (risk-taking, alcohol, drugs, and criminal activity) happen because we do not find channels for young [people’s] desire for heroic roles. [Young people] look out at the larger society and see little to believe in or join with. They want to jump somewhere better and higher, but that place is nowhere in sight.”
So how do we engage this daring spirit of youth to guide them towards taking purposeful risks, or those which seek to serve a greater cause?
First, we introduce them to the true meaning of the word “hero.” In your next family meeting, ask your kids if they know what this word means, and then share it with them.
At its origin, hero means defender and protector. It comes from the root ser-, from which we get the word “servant.”
A real hero, then, is someone who uses innate skills and unique talents to serve a greater cause. In other words, it’s not about the person. And it’s not about superheroes either.
“Today’s superhero,” says Sharon Lamb, professor of mental health at the University of Massachusetts, “is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence; he’s aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity. When not in superhero costume, these men, like Ironman, exploit women, flaunt bling, and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.”
Kids need stories of heroes with whom they can relate. Not those with high-powered guns or x-ray vision, but the ones armed with the character strengths needed for any meaningful quest.
Exposing children to real-life stories of heroic young people, then, will help them distinguish between purposeful risk-taking and recklessness such as the current social media dares which dangerously taunt kids.
Lastly, we must prepare our youth for the inevitable hardship and setbacks faced by anyone who dares greatly. Modern day society is failing on this front, reports Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Boys Adrift. “Failing is the most basic aspect of teaching kids about the human experience. Disappointment is more common than success, unhappiness is more common than happiness. It’s the first insight of every religion and robust philosophy.”
For this task, once again, exposing children to real-life stories of people who tried, failed, picked themselves up and tried again and again until succeeding will provide them with encouragement and the incentive to not give up.
Ready to learn more? Sign up for an Active Parenting course through Olive Crest or learn how you can host a course at your site. You can also reach us by phone at (714) 543-5437 ext. 9065.
Parenting Education is a program of Olive Crest. Funded by: OC Health Care Agency (HCA), Mental Health and Recovery Services, Office of Suicide Prevention, Mental Health Services Act/Prop. 63.