Risky Parenting

Sometimes my husband will come home and ask how my day was and I respond, “I was a horrible mom.  I just yelled at everyone, all day.” And other times, I will say “I was a good mom today.  I read to them, I took them to storytime or the zoo, I played princess for 20 minutes. . .” and so on.  Yelling at my kids all day is still horrible parenting, but I am starting to rethink my assumption that spending all day with my kids is good parenting.   Two magazine articles have recently altered my perception of my role as a mother.

The Value of Risk in Young Children

The cover story for the Atlantic in April, 2014 was called “The Over-Protected Kid” .  The author took her five year old son, Gideon, to a place called The Land in North Wales.  It’s an adventure playground. . . sort of a junkyard.  Kids can do pretty much whatever they want there.  There aren’t any rubber mats protecting them if they fall from a slide.  In fact there are no slides.  There are wooden pallets, fire pits, trees, a creek, old mattresses and a bunch of kids with free reign over the place.  It sounds like a condensed version of my childhood stomping grounds: the orchard, the riverbottoms and the dirt hills.  The idea is “to encourage a free and permissive atmosphere with as little adult supervision as possible. . . Kids should face what to them seem like ‘really dangerous risks’ and then conquer them alone.  That is what builds self confidence and courage.”  Her son has a great time, ends up soaking wet and uncharacteristically doesn’t even care.


The author delineates a set of six risks that are important for kids to face (as identified by Ellen Sandseter, a researcher in Norway).  Sandseter had written her master’s dissertation on how young teens need to face risk and if they couldn’t do it in socially acceptable ways, they would turn to more reckless behavior.  She concluded that “Children have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk that scares them, but then they overcome the fear.” The six types of risk she has identified are

  1. Exploring heights, or getting the “bird’s perspective” –high enough to evoke the sensation of fear.
  2. Handling dangerous tools–using sharp scissors or knives, or heavy hammers that at first seem unmanageable but that kids learn to master.
  3. Being near dangerous elements–playing near vast bodies of water or near a fire so kids are aware that there is danger nearby.
  4. Rough-and-tumble play–wrestling and play fighting.  So that kids learn to negotiate aggression and cooperation.
  5. Speed–cycling or skiing at a pace that feels too fast.
  6. Exploring on one’s own.

The last risk, exploring on their own, is extremely important.  It’s the one that has got me questioning my parenting style.  When kids are allowed to go on their own, to play outside without supervision, walk around the block by themselves (my kids are 7 and younger, so we still stay pretty close to home) or to the store, they find secret pathways and little forts; they use their imagination to create a little independent life.  This also leads to a unique child culture–rules, practices, play patterns, that are understood by all kids in the group.  Having their own culture, as well as their own forts, friends, secret paths and so forth helps the kids feel independent and strong.  I remember the exhilarating feeling of exploring a new place, even if I got scraped up or lost.

Child Culture and Independence

Our childhood forts were mostly carved out “found” spaces– at the bases of pine trees around the yard where the branches lopped down to the ground and there was a little cavern carved right by the trunk, or the little cove made by the arching of lilac branches.  I would find old carpet squares or sheets of discarded plywood and line the floor with it, set up a pretend bed or kitchen, and play with my friends.  This was our house–not my mom’s house.  And we were alone for hours.

“By engaging in risky play, children are effectively subjecting themselves to a form of exposure therapy, in which they force themselves to do the thing they’re afraid of in order to overcome their fear.  But if they never go through that process, the fear can turn into a phobia.  Paradoxically, our fear of children being harmed, mostly in minor ways (like falling off a swing or getting a sliver in barefeet) may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”

This article also explains the statistical incongruity of our reasoning that “it is more dangerous now” and “we don’t have as much time with our kids because our lives are so busy” and other logical reasons that we keep our children close and insulate them from risk.

What’s Up With Teenaged Brains?

Another article dovetailed nicely with this one–taking it from young children to teenagers.  The National Geographic from October 2011 ran an article called, “The New Science of the Teenage Brain” which had many of the same conclusions about the value of risk.  Apparently, teenaged brains undergo a major overhaul from their 12-25th years.  Our axons become more insulated with myelin, our dendrites become twiggier and the most-used synapses grow richer and stronger, while those which are more neglected are pruned away.  All of this works together as a major hardware and software upgrade.  We get better at integrating memories and experiences into our decisions (we learn from the past), and we get faster at making connections with more variables and agendas at play.  We become more complex and sensible.  But at first it comes out pretty clumsy and rather slow.

Thrill-seeking teens seem to be having brain misfires all over the place.  The author’s son was pulled over for going 113 miles an hour on the highway.  Other kids play chicken, go free climbing or mess around with drugs.  The six risk categories of childhood are amplified by access to faster transport, higher spaces, more lethal tools and rougher play.


Teenagers seem to not be thinking at all, but researchers have found an interesting process at play.  Teens actually do understand the dangers of the risks that they take just like adults do, but they value the rewards associated with them more highly than adults do.  We see a yellow light almost turning red and stop the car, enjoying the extra time to converse with a friend riding along.  They see the yellow light and think of how incredibly impressed their girlfriend will be if they speed through it, fully aware that it could be potentially dangerous, or they could get pulled over if they hit the red just right–those are worthwhile risks for the pleasure of hearing their girlfriend shriek with terror and cling to them.

Yet nature has selected for this higher regard for reward.  The willingness to take risks is what encourages teens to move forward in life.  “Succeeding often requires moving out of the home and into less secure situations.  The more you seek novelty and take risks, the better you do.  This responsiveness to reward thus works like the desire for new sensation: it gets you out of the house and into new turf.”

Why in the world did I think it was a good idea to move to Taiwan the summer of my 19th year?  When I knew not one single Taiwanese person?  When I had no work visa?  Or job?  The reward of an adventure overshadowed all of the risks.  And had I not dared to do that one crazy thing, my next trips abroad, to school, moving away from home when I got married–all of that would have seemed less attainable.  That one crazy risk gave me confidence in myself and my ability to get along.  If I could do it when I had no transportation, no language skills, and no job (and it turned out, no place to live),  I can do it anywhere.

Teenage brains develop sort of slowly which causes the “what in the world were you thinking moments” for parents (like the time my brother shaved his head bald and painted a big eyeball right in the center). But also allows them to take risks, seek out new relationships and adapt with flexibility to the world.  The myelination of the brain makes it faster, but in the balance it loses it’s flexibility.  There is a small window of the beginnings of adult-thinking combined with childhood flexibility that occurs in the teen-years of life.  This is what launches people out of the house and into their own lives and families.  Without the longing for thrill, novelty and companionship that defines teenage years, we might all be still living in our parent’s basements.  Who are living in their parents’ basements, etc.

My New Parenting Scheme

Knowing that my children need to face risk for their social development, for psychological innoculation, and because their brain is hardwired to do it has made me reevaluate what a good parenting looks like.  Sandseter’s statement is the key: “Children have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk that scares them, but then they overcome the fear.”  I have been insulating my kids from risk–carefully selecting the nicest teachers, pulling them out of activities that seemed to stress them out, arranging play dates with the friends I wanted them to be with. I was like a force field against the elements all around them.  But instead of a force field, maybe I should be their scaffolding.  We should hold our children up, secure and strong, to face the elements all around them head on. Right now, my little ones may appreciate the force field, but as they get older, and the rewards for risky behavior seem brighter, they will be seeking risk out on their own.  I ought to be subtly directing them toward acceptable risks, instead of driving them into dangerous ones with my overbearing attention.

Maybe my best day as a parent was my son’s first day of swimming lessons at the public pool.  He was four.  He clung to the side of the pool, head in his hands, sobbing.  He didn’t want to be there; we couldn’t make him do it.  I was so angry that he was wasting our money and not even trying that I let him sit there and suffer.  The other parents looked at me with complete disgust, I was a little disgusted at myself too.  The next day, I told him that if he didn’t participate, he would owe me $5.  So he participated.  By the end of the two weeks, he was the only one who dared to jump from the lifeguard chair into the deep end.  And he did it four times.   I knew that he had that within him, that’s why I didn’t let him give up.

When he started PreK a few months later, and was terrified, I said, “Remember how you were scared at swimming lessons and then you did it!  And you loved it?” and he remembered.  After a month he could walk into the school by himself.  And then the next year, when he was terrified for the new teacher at kindergarten, I had a little reserve built up of confidences for him “Remember swimming lessons?  And PreK?  You can do this too!”  And he did.  He is still scared of new things and places, but it doesn’t take him as long as it did to pluck up his courage and participate.

Parents know their children.  Instead of planning a smooth and perfect life, they should be carefully planning what type of risk each child faces.  A six foot climb would terrify my 2 year old, but  my 7 year old would need to be like 25 feet up in the air for the same panic to set in.  Parents ought to be deliberately putting these things in their paths, instead of taking them away.  Encourage the toddler climb to the top of the jungle gym.  Have a four year old stay with a trusted babysitter.  Send the kindergartner to school where everyone is new and different.  Take a 7-year old hiking up a big mountain.  Roast hot dogs over the fire and let them help build and maintain it.  Let them have a pocketknife or bow and arrow.  And above all, give them some space and time alone to explore and make up their own games, forts and culture.

In this new role as a scaffolding, I have more faith in my kid’s ability to deal with risk and hard times.  And they know I am there to encourage them and wipe away tears; because life is hard and new things are scary.

But they can do it.


  1. I completely agree with the two articles. My girls love being outside; I love that they’re not couch potatoes or always on electronics. We have moved several times. Each time I look for a neighborhood where there’s not much traffic, other kids, & friendly adult neighbors. My youngest is 9. She’s allowed to go outside without supervision, but has to check in every hour. My 14 & 11 yr old son get to explore pretty much anywhere they want. They love exploring the woods by our house. They know the dangers & they know to watch out for each other. It’s interesting that the articles note the kid culture. It’s interesting to hear my girls talk about their activities that day & about arguments they had with their friends, how they handled it. No matter how I think things should be handled, they have their own rules. I think that’s important for them. They have their leaders & followers. My parenting style has always been more open & free. I encourage them to make their own choices, to evaluate the risks, consequences, & rewards. Most importantly, I make sure they stick to it.

  2. What a great article. It’s interesting our love for our children sometimes causes us to make decisions that we think are in the best interest and are actually the opposite!

  3. I loved that Atlantic article too. There’s a book I’ve been meaning to read called “Free Range Kids” with the same kind of premise. I remember as a kid my mom would let us ride our bikes up to the Wordperfect parking lot and ride around for hours. It had all these grassy areas and pine trees that we loved to run around in. My gut reaction to that is “What was she thinking!?” (my mom was pretty laid back about this stuff, since at four — four!! — her mom sent her alone to a doctor’s appointment down the street). But I’m determined to not let my kids grow up insulated from everything and without ever being able to live unsupervised. My dad was the opposite of my mom — worrying about everything — and that has made me very risk-averse in life, something I’m still working on overcoming. I hope to cultivate that healthy sense of risk-taking with my kids that I feel like I missed out on later as a teen and young adult.

  4. I agree with you on this Jan…100%. I really identified with your statements about fighting the tendency to shield children from unpleasant experiences but using those experiences to teach children their own capacity. It is so great though to watch children–even very little ones–figure out their personal boundaries at a park or with a new skill. I’ve been the mom that seems too laissez-faire about bare feet and playing on their own. It really bothers me when “helpful” people are worried that my child will hurt herself doing a handstand.

    • I’m still laughing about those dangerous handstands, Linds. So funny. We are primarily a bare feet family too. Thanks for the input!

  5. Love this Jan!!! Why does the first child comes scared of things?? I am the kind of mom that pushed her on the slide because she was so afraid and now she goes with no problem. She still hated the Easter Bunny this year at the park, but we tried to say Hi. I want my children to have confidence that they can do whatever they want even if the fail couple times.

  6. There is never nothing going on. Lots of life lessons need to be learned by doing. Another phenomenon I’ve noticed is kids inability to organize their own games. I’ve talked with kids who play on sports teams and have for years but have never played a pickup game or played with friends without having an adult “coach” orchestrating the time. Good article….How do we learn to do hard things if we never do hard things?

  7. The other day my 9 year old son and a couple friends walked halfway up the small mountain behind our home…maybe a two mile walk one way. We watched them from our backyard with the telescope, sitting up on a pile of rocks and blissfully looking down on the small world beneath them. I think it’s one of the most valuable educational experiences he’s had all year, and, oh, the feelings of accomplishment!!! Loved your article, thank you!

  8. I like that you pointed out that we perceive that today is more dangerous than when we were kids, but that’s a fallacy. I really do think that the danger level is about the same today (depending on where you live, of course) and that this social stigma about not letting your kids free is actually kind of weird. Kids don’t play outside anymore. As a result, I’ve seen that kids have a harder time pretending, which leads to a lack of creativity and problem solving as they get older. Maybe that’s why there are so many young adults who live with their parents. I for one am grateful for a childhood out in the country where we would hike in the forest with machetes to clear our path, shoot paintball guns at the trees, and push over dead trees without adult supervision.

  9. I think yes, being over protective does not works. Every child for that matter learns with time ( or rather with the TEST of time). Time is indeed the finest teacher. I think my idea of parenting is to take my child is a journey of ordinary happiness. The happiness that is drawn by eating self plucked seasonal fruits, by holding a butterfly, playing with a balloon, riding cycling and enjoying rain! That is what I call a life. My child’s childhood should not be all about playing PS and tablet games. He should see, feel and learn from the virtues of nature.

  10. Children need risks, but they also need a safety net. Thus the importance of communication between parents and child. My children take risks and are very good at assessing the dangers they do see (sharp knives, fast-moving cars), but don’t always see all of the hidden dangers (schoolyard dares from kids much older than they are). Love and Logic parenting books really helped me see how I could leave the consequences in place, but still protect my children from the dangers that are too great- and the key is to keep the communication channels open.

What are your thoughts? (Please review the comment policy above)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s