When we hear the phrase "risk taking," we often think of harm or danger. However, the act of growing, developing, and discovering yourself necessarily involves risk. Risk taking is how we learn about ourselves, our capabilities, and our environment. Add to this the evidence that risk-taking children tend to make better decisions as teenagers and adults and it's probably time we do away with the negative connotation of the phrase.
Risk Taking Is Part of Development
Recent studies have outlined how teenagers in particular are attracted to uncertainty and unknown risks -- or at least risks which are unknown to them. The brain during this time is geared more towards discovery and the teenagers are far more likely to engage in activity which has uncertain outcomes or risk than those in which the risk is already known.
According to Adriana Galvan, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist at UCLA
"Adolescents are uniquely sensitive to the uncertainty in the world. Perhaps their willingness to engage in uncertainty is driven by the potential rewards that might result from that uncertainty. For them, the rewards loom so much bigger than the potential negatives." - Teens Brain Wired to Take Risks
The key here, however, is that the risk is unknown to teenagers. Even if the risk is widely known among adults, if teenagers are uncertain of their likelihood for success, they will be inclined to engage in the activity. Physical education teachers and outdoor educators have long noted that activities such as rock climbing and zip lining, which the individual perceives as risky, are some of the quickest and most deliberate ways to boost an individual's self-belief. The activity appears physically risky but in fact is relatively safe. The child goes through the same learning curve emotionally as if the activity was dangerous but the only risk is in not achieving success that day. Many would argue that the process of not succeeding immediately and having to regroup, refocus, and retry is also as important as the success completion of a task.
Growth and Discovery
Risk taking is not just something that teenagers do. Think about how toddlers and even elementary schoolers learn. They discover. They try something new -- uncertain of the outcome -- either fail or succeed, and then try again. Risk taking is part of how we expand into who we become. However, this risk-taking behavior, which is applauded when children are very young, becomes criticized as they become teenagers. Adults' fear of the unknown and concern for teenagers' safety, while logical and understandable, may actually be doing teenagers a disservice and stifling their ability to grow and discover their world.
Risk Takers Learn to Judge
The action of risk taking has been linked to a myriad of positive developmental outcomes including creativity (Ball, 2002); persistence and resilience (Dweck, 2000); self-efficacy (Christensen and Mikellsen, 2008); and even in improving teenage judgment of the relative danger or negative risk of an activity (SADD, 2004). Take a look at that last point again -- children and teenagers who are more practiced in taking risks are actually better at judging potentially harmful outcomes of risk-taking activities and less likely to engage in negative risk taking behavior. Isn't that what we want -- to have our children make sound, responsible, and non-harmful decisions?
Harmful and Helpful Risk Taking
Risk taking itself should not be viewed as inherently bad, wrong, or dangerous. As with anything, risk taking lies on a continuum and can thus include both harmful and helpful activities. But the bottom line is that we all seek risk in order to grow and better understand ourselves and our capabilities.
The role of parents, teachers, and adults should be to promote positive, informed risk taking. We can all think of many positive physical risk-taking activities -- rock climbing, sky diving, mountain biking -- but there are also activities that can be best described as social-emotional risk-taking activities, such as drama, dance, or musical performance. The adrenaline rush is the same and many would argue that being in front of an audience is actually more nerve racking. You may not fear falling and injuring yourself, but you certainly fear embarrassment. Thus, performing on stage in front of peers is a risk-taking activity. In fact, even adults claim public speaking is something they fear more than -- wait for it -- death.
It is up to parents and educators to provide opportunities for children to take risks and then adjust and adapt these activities as they grow and mature. We need to reclaim the term risk and see risk taking as a positive necessary part of growth, development and learning.