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Why Kids Need to Take Risks & How to Encourage Them

Last year, I wrote about how American young adults are among the most risk-averse population our country has ever produced. It was not meant to be an insult. It was meant to explain why so many take Mom to a job interview, move home after college or are afraid to pursue other appropriate endeavors as young professionals. If they are afraid, it’s likely our fault.

So, what’s the fallout of a young person who’s never permitted to skin their knee, play outside after dark or even venture away from home with a friend? While I understand the paranoia of millions of parents in our scary world today—it is coming home to backfire on us as this generation moves into adulthood.

The Riskiest Drivers on the Road?

photo credit: martinak15 228/365 via photopin (license)

Millennial drivers happen to be the worst drivers in America. I realize that sounds like a grumpy old man, but it’s based on actual data from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Their report found 88 percent of drivers, ages 19-24, acknowledged engaging in risky behavior such as texting while driving, running red lights or speeding on the road. Certainly, all ages can and do engage in risky driving habits, but the rate young people did so was alarming.

  • Millennials reported typing or sending a text or email at twice the rate of other age groups in the study.
  • Nearly half of Millennials admitted to running red lights, compared to just over one out of three people in other age groups.
  • Twice as many Millennials reported that speeding through a school zone was acceptable—when compared to other age brackets.

“Alarmingly, some of the drivers ages 19-24 believe that their driving behavior is acceptable,” according to David Yang, the foundation’s executive director. It’s a very interesting response from a generation that’s been taught “safety first” at every turn. We made them wear helmets whenever they rode a bike, seat belts whenever they rode in a car and never let them out of our sight on a playground or at a party. As kids, they grew up knowing about safety because the adults in their lives have been obsessed with it.

Why the Risky Driving?

So, how do we explain this reckless behavior while driving?

  1. Children learn to navigate risks—not through discussions or TV shows—but by actually taking risks. It’s like learning to swim. They must learn it on their own terms. If they’ve never had to navigate something scary, they won’t know how to do it when the stakes are higher. This results in poorer decisions as teens.
  1. There are specific levels of risks that are appropriate for each age group or life station in children. When we refuse to let them negotiate those risks at the appropriate age, they quickly become fearful. Then later, in adolescence, they become careless when their brain signals rewards for risky behavior (friends love it) but sends limited cautionary signals.
  1. When we fail to allow kids to take risks and to mitigate scary situations, their frontal lobe doesn’t develop or mature as it should. The child enters adulthood undeveloped or at least underdeveloped. Young adults are bound to make unwise decisions when it’s time to spread their wings and try life on their own.

It’s interesting to note the statistics that drivers—ages 19-24—are engaging in the riskiest habits. So, when they get their license (at age 16 or 17) they remain a bit cautious, as they get used to the automobile. Two to three years into the license, however, we see a huge jump in risky behavior. Too many feel “on top of the world” if they’ve never experienced an accident.

But do we really want them to have an accident to learn about risk?

Steps We Must Take

  1. We must allow them to take appropriate risks as a child to learn to navigate them when the stakes are low. The earlier they learn, the wiser they enter adolescence.
  1. We must debrief risky decisions (actions) once they make them on a playground or in the neighborhood. Talk about risks and rewards and how they felt.
  1. We must let them fail or fall, if it doesn’t mean permanent damage. For me, a bike accident, a skateboard fall and a spat at school taught me huge lessons for adulthood.
  1. We must remember that protection and prevention are natural adult instincts, but both have led to the highest annual increase in traffic deaths in five decades. A kid will do stupid things inside a two-ton vehicle if he or she hasn’t experienced any pain or learned any life lessons as a child.

Within reason, let them climb, let them run, let them explore and grow in the process.


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