This is the fifth in a series of six articles on how we can raise more resilient kids. Each article explores practical way parents and other involved adults can intentionally help children and teens become better able to deal with the challenges of life.
Resilient individuals not only get through tough times, but they also become stronger versions of themselves. In this article, we will discuss the difference between good risk-taking, bad risk-taking, and how you can encourage your child to take healthy risks.
What Does Being Adventurous Really Mean?
When I talk about being adventurous, I’m not talking about being a world traveler or leading an expedition. Instead, when I say a kid is adventurous, I mean he or she is willing to take risks. But not just any risks. Specifically, I want kids to take healthy risks.
There are plenty of ways kids and teens can take risks, but some of those—drug use, unsafe driving, sneaking out, dangerous activities, unprotected sex, illegal behavior, and so on—are not healthy and don’t lead a person to become more resilient.
Instead, we want our kids to take healthy risks that will lead to good results. Let’s look at two high school guys who embody both kinds of risk:
Good and Bad Risk-Takers
Stephen had an awesome singing voice and a great comic presence. He wasn’t the most popular kid in his high school, but during football games, there would always be a group around him laughing and joking.
One night when he burst into a parody of a popular song, several of his friends urged him to try out for the school musical, the stage version of Shrek.
“No, I couldn’t do it,” he said.
“Why not? You’ve got a great voice and you’re really funny,” one of the girls in the group said.
“I’ve never done anything like that before,” he said.
“So what?” she shot back. “You should at least try.”
He had several objections:
- He had never been on stage before
- Other kids would make fun of him
- He’d never had any formal voice training
- He got nervous in front of large groups
- He didn’t think he could remember all his lines
- He didn’t have that much free time
- He didn’t know any of the other kids who were usually in the plays
His friends wouldn’t back down. They destroyed his objections one by one.
“You have to do it,” one of them said.
At last, he agreed to go to the audition. Despite never having been in a play before (except for being a silent carrot in kindergarten), he got the part of Donkey, one of the great comic characters in the musical.
Opening night came and nearly all his friends were there, seated near his parents and grandmother. He killed it. He hit every note. He slayed with every line. He got some of the biggest laughs and loudest applause of the night.
“I’m glad I did it,” he told me later. “The director said I should come back again next year.”
Across town in another high school, Jack can’t wait for the weekend because he gets to do one of his favorite things: meet up with some other dudes and go street racing.
There’s a stretch of highway between two rural counties where the cops hardly ever patrol. It’s a straight shot for nearly three miles without a single stoplight.
His Volkswagen GTI is no match for the Nissan GT-R or the tricked-out BMW that show up on Friday nights, but he’s a great driver and can squeeze the maximum amount of speed out of his little car.
He knows it’s risky: a deer strike put one of the drivers in the hospital for almost a month last year. Two other drivers got tickets for reckless driving and one of them lost his license for a year. Still, he says, the thrill is worth it.
When I talk about being adventurous and taking risks, I am talking more about Stephen than Jack.
Stephen risks disappointment, social mockery, discomfort, anxiety, and low-grade failure; Jack risks death, injury, legal trouble, even jail.
If Stephen fails, he might feel low for awhile, but his life goes on; if Jack fails, the results could be catastrophic.
We are reluctant to talk about risk-taking with kids and teens because we think it sounds like we are talking about encouraging guys like Jack to do dumb stuff. Bad risk-taking does not usually lead to good outcomes.
Kids who jump from great heights or ride with people who are high are taking risks that will not benefit them; however, good risk-taking in kids and teens leads to resilience.
Examples of Healthy Risk-Taking
Stephen tried out for a musical, even though he was nervous and had no experience. Even if he hadn’t gotten the part and even if he hadn’t been great on stage, it was still a risk worth taking. So what are other good forms of risk-taking that might benefit a kid?
Here are just a dozen examples:
- Trying out for a sports team
- Asking a girl or guy out
- Applying to a “reach” college
- Going to a new overnight camp
- Volunteering with a community group
- Participating more actively in class discussion
- Taking an honors class
- Leading skits or singing at a youth group
- Campaigning or raising awareness for a deeply-felt cause
- Performing at a talent show
- Sharing a personal story with a friend
- Running for student government
I could go on, but you get the point. There are nearly endless ways to take good risks. If the worst that can happen with an activity is low-level failure, rejection, or getting your feelings hurt, then it’s probably a risk worth taking.
How Healthy Risk-Taking Leads to Resilience
In an earlier article, I explained how parents have become so fearful and hovering that it thwarts a kid’s ability to become resilient. You are not likely to be a resilient person if you are never able to fail or if you are sheltered from all the fallout of failure.
This is exactly why risk-taking leads to resilience. By nature, taking a risk means you might fail. If you couldn’t fail, then there is no risk. Because of this, the very act of taking a risk begins to cultivate mental and emotional toughness. The willingness to put yourself out there is a mindset that leads to great resilience.
When you take a risk as a kid, you might…
- Get cut from the football team
- Not get a part in the musical
- Feel rejected by a girl you like
- Lose an election by a landslide
- Get waitlisted for a college
- Not make friends at camp
- Hit a squeaky note while singing
- Get a low grade
And so on. The risk is always there. However, if a kid has a willingness to take a good risk, the payoff can be gratifying and the failure can make her stronger. As those involved in the lives of kids and teens, we don’t encourage risk only when there is a guarantee of success; we challenge them to take risks that might not work out.
One of my daughters took some early risks, including a decision to run for student body president. She lost to an older student who had been at the school far longer than she had.
However, as she got older, she didn’t shy away from challenges. She embraced them. She ended up speaking before the entire Board of County Commissioners; she chose a college that fit her best even though it was ten hours away from home; she took a job in an unfamiliar industry.
You can listen to a brief podcast on healthy risk-taking for girls here. For many kids, taking a good risk often leads to a willingness to take other good risks, even if the outcome is not what they wanted.
How You Can Promote Healthy Risk-Taking
Some kids are adventurous and eager to take on challenges, while other kids are more tentative and averse to risk. Either way, there are some things you can do that will help your kids be better risk takers.
1. Explain the Benefits of Healthy Risk-Taking
Using some of the ideas, examples, and principles here, you can talk to kids about how good risk-taking leads to more mental and emotional toughness.
2. Encourage Your Child to Pick One Way He or She Will Take a Risk This Year
There are several examples in this article that you can use as prompts, or you can encourage him or her to pick another one.
3. Don’t Be Too Quick to Save Your Kid From Failure
Whether it is the risk of a low grade or the failure to make a sports team, let your kid own the failure and deal with it. Be supportive and encouraging, but don’t interfere.
4. Explain the Difference Between Good and Bad Risk-Taking
Some kids are risk-takers by nature, but not the good kind. They are always pushing the envelope with dangerous or unhealthy behavior. Commend the impulse to take risks, talk about the differences between good and bad risks, then set strong limits on negative risk-taking.
5. Frame Failures as Growth Moments
People who aren’t resilient experience failures as moments of shame, while resilient individuals seem them as moments of growth. Help your child see that failures are opportunities to learn, grow, get stronger or better, and try again.
Taking good, healthy risks can help a child become more resilient whether he succeeds or not. Encourage your kids to be adventurous and do something challenging and hard. The benefits could last them a lifetime.