Being the parent of an energetic thrill-seeker can be nerve-wracking. It’s tough to accept that your child may have a greater tolerance for risk than you do when your parental instinct is to keep him safe.
Put perceived risk into perspective Just ask Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts with Worry, and host of reality television show Bubble Wrap Kids. Skenazy, the New York City mom who famously let her nine-year-old son ride the subway home alone in 2008, is on a crusade to prove that children aren’t as fragile as their parents think. She doesn’t condone kids playing with fire or riding their bikes backwards down a hill, but she does believe today’s parents should put perceived risks into perspective. “It’s as if any unsupervised activity is as dangerous as jumping off the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle,” she says. “What happens at the playground today is pretty tame compared with what kids were doing 100 years ago – like chopping wood.”
Daredevils are safer and more confident There is evidence that children who take risks are more confident and safer in the long run. In Too Safe for Their Own Good, Michael Ungar, a professor at the School of Social Work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, argues that kids who aren’t allowed to test their limits may eventually pursue other adventure-seeking behaviours, such as drugs or alcohol. And according to Joe Frost, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas who has written numerous books on children’s play, risk-takers learn self-protection by figuring out how to run, jump, balance and fall safely. “We’re losing these physical skills,” warns Skenazy. “We’re treating our kids like invalids.”
When to worry There is a difference between acceptable risk and recklessness — impulsive behaviour can be part of an underlying disorder such as ADHD or autism. Toddlers and preschoolers are still learning about danger and impulse-control, but school-aged children should have developed skills that help them regulate impulsive behaviour.
If, instead, they frequently act without thinking (both in class and on the playground) gravitate to high-risk activities and are unusually accident prone, there could be something else at play. “Look for a pervasive pattern,” says Kenny Handelman, a psychiatrist in Oakville, Ont., and author of Attention Difference Disorder. “Is the child doing reasonably well in school? What about emotional or psychological development?” Handelman also suggests more structured outlets for adrenaline-junkie kids, such as martial arts.
Boys vs. girls Gender also plays a role in physical fearlessness — studies show that boys risk injury more often than girls, although it’s not clear why. Some argue that boys have higher activity levels or are less willing to ask for help than girls. A 1998 study from two Ontario universities (Guelph and Western Ontario) found that girls judge safety risks in absolute terms (“Will I get hurt?”) while boys assess risk based on the severity of a potential injury (“How hurt will I get?”).
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Today's Parent Magazine with the headline "No fear," pp. 54-56.
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