Saturday, June 4, 2016

Every Choice We Make

    We worry a lot about our kids. A lot. This current generation of parents is inundated with warnings, with news reports reminding us that the modern world is a scary, scary place. If you turn your back, your child may be abducted. If you use that sunscreen, your child will get cancer. If you don't use sunscreen, your child will get cancer. If your kid doesn't eat vegetables, he'll be obese, but if those vegetables aren't organic, he'll have learning disabilities. He will be obese, too, if he doesn't play outside, but if he plays outside, he might break his arm. Or get abducted. Or get cancer.

And so on.

There's inherent risk in every choice we make. Well, every choice worth making at all, that is.

We call choices "risky" if they make us nervous. We have given "risk" a nasty, scary connotation. We've started saying "rather not chance it" about every little thing, especially when it comes to our kids. "You can never be too safe!"seems to be the rallying cry of this generation.

But that's wrong.

We forget that risk is the "potential of gaining or losing something of value."

Playing it safe leaves us without the potential to gain something of power. It leaves an empty space in our lives, in the lives of our children, that cannot be filled. Our lives are duller, flatter, less, without risk.

Risk isn't just the chance that something bad can happen. It's the chance that something good can happen. The very nature of risk is that there is something to be gained, something worthwhile, something valuable.

We should encourage our kids to be risk takers.

Being a risk taker is not the same as being reckless. It's quite the opposite, really.

Being able to evaluate risk - that means being able to accurately gauge the potential gains and losses in a given situation - is vital for growth. There's not much to be gained without risk.

The picture above is my seven year old son climbing a dry creek bed in Terlingua, Texas. It was about ten feet from the ground to the top of the bank. I don't know if I can describe my joy in watching him scale it.

The bank was crumbly in parts, and he tested each hand- and foothold carefully to ensure it wouldn't fall away under his weight. At one point, he got overconfident and grabbed without testing. The bank crumbled and he slipped, turning to slide on his butt until he caught himself and then immediately started up again, even more cautiously than before, but without a moment's hesitation. He made it to the top in a matter of minutes. and thrilled at the view - both of the mountains up above, and of his mom and little sister below in in the creek bed.

This was risk. It was a risk for him and a risk for me.

It wasn't reckless. It wasn't careless. It was risk - a chance to gain something of value paired with a chance to fall, to fail. He understood the risk and all it entailed, and I did, too. We both trusted in his abilities and knew he was capable.

He gained something climbing to the top of that creek bank, as he does each time he tests himself, tries something new, takes a risk. He gains confidence in himself, he strengthens his body, he learns something new by seeing the world from a slightly different perspective. These are things we all can gain from risk.

Valuable gains are inherent in risk.

The trip itself was a risk. We drove countless hours (my husband, our fearless, tireless driver, estimates about 50 hours of driving, and I don't think he's wrong). We camped in tents and hiked in deserts and waded in the Rio Grande. We risked car trouble and whiny kids and sunburn and rattlesnakes and broken bones and probably other stuff too. We toured three National Parks, two National Monuments and two State Parks. We saw mountains and deserts and rivers and caverns. We found ancient petroglyphs and tiny desert wildflowers and white lizards that were perfectly camouflaged in the dunes of White Sands. We witnessed sunsets and sunrises over the wide open desert and viewed countless stars in the inky black skies only found when you're far from the city and up way past bedtime. My son bought a souvenir pocket knife and sat up whittling in the evenings, the lure of television and Minecraft momentarily forgotten.

The benefits outweighed any potential losses.

We didn't even see any rattlesnakes, for the record. The kids were actually kind of bummed. No scorpions, either, or scary spiders, and the only nasty interaction with a cactus resulted in my seven year old pulling out the spines himself at his own insistence. The lessons he learned and the pride he took in yanking out each spine with the pocket knife pliers outweighed the discomfort of the moment.

In Joan Almon's Adventure: The Value of Risk in Children's Play, she reminds us that "facing risk helps children assess the world around them and their place in it." She goes on to say that  "most children have an innate ability to assess risk... With opportunity to practice they become skilled in taking risks. Opportunity to master increasingly challenging play is essential for safety in play."

It is vital that we allow children these opportunities. It's hard to step back and let them, but we absolutely must. This is how they learn to be safe, how they will be able to navigate dangers when we aren't there to guide them.

The consequences of not allowing children the chance to make choices, some of them risky, and to learn from both their successes and their missteps, are tremendous. The adage "better a broken bone than a broken spirit" comes to mind, though children who are consistently given the chance to challenge themselves - to engage in risky, powerful play - are actually less likely to break a bone.

In The Role of Risk in Play and Learning, Almon tells us that "although no one wants to see a child injured, creating an environment that is overly safe creates a different kind of danger for them. Growing up in a risk-averse society, such as we currently have, means children are not able to practice risk-assessment which enables them to match their skills with the demands of the environment. As a result, many children have become very timid and are reluctant to take risks. At the opposite extreme, many have difficulty reading the situations they face and take foolhardy risks, repeatedly landing in trouble."

Opportunities to take on calculated, appropriate risks actually decrease the chance your child will be seriously hurt. A child who has been given opportunities for risky play knows his body, knows his limitations, understand the world around him. 

There are tremendous emotional and spiritual implications, as well. 

Peter Gray discusses the value of risky play from an evolutionary perspective in Risky Play: Why Children Love It And Need It : "Such findings have contributed to the emotion regulation theory of play—the theory that one of play’s major functions is to teach young mammals how to regulate fear and anger. In risky play, youngsters dose themselves with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping their heads and behaving adaptively while experiencing that fear.  They learn that they can manage their fear, overcome it, and come out alive...Thus, according to the emotion regulation theory, play is, among other things, the way that young mammals learn to control their fear and anger so they can encounter real-life dangers, and interact in close quarters with others, without succumbing to negative emotions." Kids need the chance to learn to deal with these emotions and to recover from events that anger them or scare them. Practicing these skills in manageable situations during childhood help them build a toolkit that they can draw from when they encounter bigger, scarier things as adults. 

What does this mean for our modern kids, deprived of risky play opportunities? What happens to kids who don't get these opportunities? Gray's research finds that "over the past 60 years we have witnessed, in our culture, a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play freely, without adult control, and especially in their opportunities to play in risky ways.  Over the same 60 years we have also witnessed a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic increase in all sorts of childhood mental disorders, especially emotional disorders." Our kids are developing anxiety disorders and depression at alarming rates. Gray says "We deprive children of free, risky play, ostensibly to protect them from danger, but in the process we set them up for mental breakdowns.  Children are designed by nature to teach themselves emotional resilience by playing in risky, emotion-inducing ways.  In the long run, we endanger them far more by preventing such play than by allowing it. And, we deprive them of fun."

There's inherent risk in every choice we make.

I choose to let my children explore in ways that others might deem "risky," and I own that choice as a positive one for my family.

Risk is the potential of gaining or losing something of value.

(I'm using the definition of risk used in the study of industrial and organizational psychology, by the way, as I feel it is the most appropriate. See here for a relevant discussion if you are so inclined).

I do allow my children to take on situations in which they may fall, or encounter disappointment, or failure or bumps and bruises.

But therein lies the chance for them to experience things that strengthen them physically, mentally and spiritually. These are their chances to ward off anxiety and depression. These are their chances to feel strong and powerful and confident.

These are their chances to experience the world from new perspectives, to wander, to wonder, to fully live.

To me, the worst loss would be a broken spirit.

It would be far worse for me as a parent to shield them from the beauty and wonder that this big world holds from them because I was scared they'd get hurt.

The big risks always have big potential gains. I hope I always take the risk.

I hope they do, too.

There is so much of value to gain.

And so much to lose if they don't get that chance. 

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