Healthy Challenge or Undue Risk?

know the difference
Healthy Challenge or Undue Risk? child with backpack and hat standing atop a high hill
© Can Stock Photo / altanaka

In parenting, negotiating the fretful terrain between dangerous risk and healthy challenge is nothing short of excruciating for many of us. We want so dearly to raise capable, brave, and resilient children, yet we fear broken bones and the bogeyman at every turn and yearn to pad our babes in bubble wrap. A wise Zen proverb teaches us that “Walking is an adaptation of falling,” but how bad a fall should we be willing to tolerate in the name of growth? Challenge is to be embraced and encouraged, and risk is to be avoided — right? How can we tell them apart when they seem so similar in our worried parental brains?

Assess the risk

Dr. Kristine Hansen, Associate Professor of Psychology with a specialization in child development at the University of Winnipeg, puts it in quick perspective, explaining that risk is about “the likelihood of something bad happening. Many challenges involve some risk.” It’s a question of weighing out the potential benefit of outcomes in light of the risk incurred. “You don’t want high risk and low benefit, or even moderate risk and low benefit. You also probably don’t want high risk, whatever the potential benefit. However, as the potential benefit rises, you might consider allowing activities with moderate risk levels, provided that you believe your child is able to cope.”

Know your child

As she explains it, the challenge is really for parents to know their children and to be able to correctly gauge their level of ability. Finding the ideal risk to challenge ratio is all about monitored incremental growth, or constant little challenges, as opposed to giant leaps into the unknown. Move from your child’s current level of competence, then “encourage activities that cause them to reach just a bit beyond that level. If they have to reach too far, the odds of failure are high, but if the reach is moderate, the odds of success and growth are high. Also, consider what your children can do on their own, and what they can do with your help. If they could do it by themselves — up to that point just a bit beyond their current ability — don’t interfere. Before you offer parental help, just be sure that the activity is too far beyond the child’s current level for independent success.” Controlling your urge to jump in and “help” when it’s unnecessary is critical, Hansen reminds us, “Because without challenge, there can be no new success and increased competence.”

Healthy risk is integral to challenge

Julian Norris, Associate Director of Outward Bound Canada, underscores the importance of Hansen’s counsel, reminding us, “Young people often seek out challenges to test themselves and discover who they are... it’s a very natural part of growing up. If we do not provide healthy risks, they will find other avenues... following an essentially healthy impulse in ways that may be self-destructive.” For Norris, whose career with Outward Bound is largely focused on establishing healthy challenge for kids, “We can see two kinds of risk — healthy risk and unhealthy risk. Unhealthy risks are the things that can present very real dangers — such as exposure to avalanches or driving in unsafe vehicles — that have no educational value in a modern youth course. At Outward Bound Canada, we do everything possible to minimize or eliminate our students’ exposure to unhealthy risk. Healthy risks, on the other hand, include the things that may appear daunting to a young person — such as rappelling over the edge of a cliff or sleeping in a tent in the wilds — but where the chances of getting hurt are minimal or nonexistent. There are also activities where there is genuine risk. For example, if a student loses their gloves in the winter their hands are going to get cold — there are real consequences that flow from our choices in the outdoors. But the growth and sense of responsibility that comes from developing competency in such environments can give such healthy risk a meaningful educational value — when properly presented and with a well-crafted risk-management plan in place. It can add an element of genuine challenge that many parents feel is artificially lacking in children’s education these days.”

Allow children to learn vital lessons

When asked to comment on how parents might identify a healthy balance between risk and challenge in our everyday lives, Norris says: “It’s not easy. Fridge magnet clichés are not that useful and we all have to find our own way with this. We all want to protect our children from harm — the trick is not to ‘protect’ them from learning vital lessons. I think it starts with how we as parents live our own lives. Do we approach life as a magnificent adventure? Do we truly value independent thinking and resourcefulness? Are we as curious about the world around us as we hope our children will be? There are many different experiences that we can offer children to learn confidence, competence and independence. It is important that we are in the right kind of relationship with them to draw sustenance from such experiences. Without mutual trust and good communication it becomes much harder — our heartfelt protective instincts can be experienced as a struggle for control.”

Model challenge yourself

Finally, and eloquently, Norris reminds us that challenges are like adventures — they are experiences with uncertain outcomes that require us to be fully engaged participants if we are to navigate them successfully. “One of the risks is failure. We may be required to strive hard before we are successful. And in that striving, our characters are forged and polished in preparation for the challenges of our own lives and the great challenges of our times... Preparing [our children] to embrace challenge and face it may be the greatest gift we are able to give them.”

Growth is a journey

So, maybe knowing where to draw the line between risk and challenge isn’t really what’s most important. Instead, perhaps we should consider the attitude with which we approach and navigate the unknown. Choose to embrace challenge yourself and recognize that you’ll be able to provide guidance through example, rather than with a controlling grasp. Growth is a journey that you can take along with your children. It is a challenge that will see you both make mistakes, experience lapses in judgement and take a few tumbles in the name of best intentions. This has to be okay if you’re to move beyond your comfort zones. After all, isn’t growth about exploring new territory? Ultimately, the greatest risk of all, for yourself and for your children, is for you to fear change, stay where you are, and do nothing.