Helping Your Child Manage Risk

The following is by Simple Kids contributor Catherine Way of Adventures with Kids.


Learning always involves a degree of risk and challenge. To learn something new you need to challenge yourself to do something you haven’t done before and risk failing a few times until you master the skill.  Children happily challenge themselves to learn new skills.  They want to learn to walk, or talk, or ride a bike and they are not put off by a few mistakes or tumbles.

Each new challenge that a child (or an adult) conquers, builds their motivation to learn, confidence in their ability to learn and knowledge of their capabilities.

It is tempting, as a parent who doesn’t want my child to be hurt, to say ‘no’ when my child wants to do something risky.  It is tempting to remove objects and equipment rather than let my child learn how to use them.   But this deprives my child of the chance to know their strengths and weaknesses and it damages their confidence in their own abilities.

If I want my child to make their own decisions as they grow older, rather than just doing what they are told or doing what everyone else is doing, I need to let them take risks and learn by experience the consequences of misjudging a risk. I need to encourage them to think about the risks that they want to take and how they can keep themselves safe.  This is an important life skill.

So, how can you encourage your child to be a safe risk-taker?

Set up the Environment

Set up an environment that challenges your child’s skills but doesn’t expose them to unnecessary hazards.

  • Remove hazards. This is why you should fence your pool or make sure there is something soft under the climbing frame in the playground.  This is why you put child-proof plugs in your powerpoints or a lock on your medicine cabinet.  Taking these precautions allows your child to explore in a safe environment.
  • Supervise your child.
  • Provide age-appropriate challenges so that your child is engaged when playing and not tempted to behave recklessly because there is nothing suitable to do.

Supervise and Set Guidelines

Learn what your child is capable of by saying ‘yes’ when your child wants to try new things. This gives you the chance to be around to supervise, set guidelines and talk about the hazards.

For example, my toddler loves to climb and I want to say ‘yes’ to his desire to climb.  But I also want him to be safe, so I don’t let him climb the bookcase inside where if he falls he will land on hard tiles.  I take him outside to the playground where the ground is soft if he falls.

I don’t hold him as he climbs because he needs to know that when he climbs he must hold on.  If he gets stuck, I show him where he might put his foot or his hand.  When he gets to the top and wants to come down, I don’t lift him down because part of climbing is knowing how to get down.  I tell him to come down backwards and help him find places to put his feet.

He has satisfied his desire to learn to climb and learned some things about how to climb safely.

Manage Risks, Prepare, Remind

Encourage your child to assess the risks and possible consequences before they attempt an activity.

Talk to your child about any risks you can see in the activity they are about to try.  Ask them how they could make it safer.  Talk them through risk assessment and equip them with the skills to assess risks when you aren’t around.

For example, my preschooler is nearly five.  He wants to run around outside in our backyard by himself, but we live in Australia and there is a good chance he will run into snakes, spiders and other nasties.

I manage the risk by keeping my garden tidy and removing hazards like piles of logs that might harbor dangerous creatures.  But it is still likely that my son will encounter some of the nasties.

So, I  prepare him to think about what might happen and what he will do if he does encounter a snake or other threat.  We talk about where snakes are likely to be, what he should do if he sees one and when he goes out I remind him to keep his eyes open.

If we want to raise independent, confident and capable adults, we need to encourage our children to accept risks and challenges. So take a risk and let your child do something that scares you.  Perhaps you could let your toddler use a knife or let your grade-schooler ride the subway alone.

Do you find it hard to let your child take risks? Do you try and teach them about assessing and minimizing risks?


About Catherine

Catherine Way is mum to two boys living in North Australia. They read lots, run lots, love to learn new things and are good at finding fun and mischief. Catherine blogs about her family adventures and passion for lifelong learning at Indirect Observations.

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  1. I wholeheartedly agree Catherine.
    SquiggleMum´s latest post: Climbing Trees

  2. My daughter has been fascinated with needle felting for as long as I’ve been into the hobby myself. For a long time I was hesitant to let her try. Those needles are sharp and they hurt, after-all! But, she was persistent and eventually I gave in and let her try.

    I did, as you suggest here, set it up to be a safe as possible for her (made sure she had a mat underneath her work, the proper needle, etc.) and talked with her about the risks and while she’s working I remind her to be careful and that the needle will hurt if she pricks herself.

    She’s branched out into hand sewing (needles! sharp scissors! pins!) and it does still make me nervous, but I want her to feel confident, as you say, and she rises right to the challenge with responsibility and respect for her task. I’ve also seen her ask for help when she needs it, which to me is an important part of this: it means she knows when something is too much for her to handle on her own.

    Now, my four year old and two year old? We’re still in the teaching phases of age-appropriate risk assessment, but we’re getting there 🙂

    Prepare, Talk, Remind … knowing that I’m giving them the tools makes it a bit easier to let go 🙂
    Kara @Simple Kids´s latest post: Helping Your Child Manage Risk

  3. If you don’t let children take risks, they can’t find out what they are capable of.
    HereWeGoAJen´s latest post: Tortoise Rider

  4. I’ve learned to let go a little bit and let my kids try what I feel are riskier new things. I find that I’m ok with doing that when I’m able to talk to them about what they’re doing and they can express the joy of doing it. It’s so great to see their confidence levels rise!
    Tina @ Kids Devil Costumes´s latest post: Boys Devil Costume

  5. Very appropriate timing! My son now wants to walk to/from school. I trust him, but the school is on a pretty busy street and the traffic really scares me. My hubby and I sat down with him and talked about all of the “rules”. I know he will be fine and needs to stretch his wings but it is still hard for Mom! =)
    Paula´s latest post: Mealtime Mistakes

  6. Angela Sondrol says:

    I appreciate this article as I just got a call from my mother asking “so how much ttrouble can a 9 year old get into in a rowboat??” my avid adventurer often times realizes late that he does not have the knowledge to get out of the situation he is in, sometimes it’s an issue of living and learning… I totally agree if we don’t teach them certain risks they will never have the skills to handle risk as an adult!!

  7. My 3 year old is a natural risk taker. I’m trying to learn to give an alternative “Yes” when I have to tell him “No.” When he starts stacking chairs and I can tell he wants to climb a tall tower, I try to find something appropriate he can build and climb. Or we’ve told him he may jump down as many stairs as are his age. It’s going to get trickier as he gets older!
    Alissa´s latest post: Skip ahead to 10

  8. Wholeheartedly agree…though I don’t always put it into practice. I am going to be more mindful of this going forward. A nice balance would be a risk assessment article for parents, there are many who give their children too much freedom! Trust, but verify is the principle I am going to try and follow as my now 10 year old transitions into middle school.

  9. Such a great post Catherine. Encouraging kids to have a go in a safe environment is so important for their self esteem and confidence. I also think a parents attitude to mistakes is also critical in ensuring that kids will be prepared to take on new challenges. They will not always succeed on their first attempt and if kids feel that this is “failing” then they are less likely to try new things. Celebrating the process and not the end result can also help kids to be willing to try new challenges and be prepared to have to persevere with them.
    PlanningQueen´s latest post: Chalkboard Paint Ideas

  10. I try and encourage my children to take risks. I find myself explaining to them that it is not as dangerous as they think and ‘it’ is accomplishable. I encourage them to move beyond their norm and experience new things. …but of course, all while I’m right there, helping them along the way.
    Joseph Nally´s latest post: Overtime Work Affects Home Life

  11. Like all of you I find it difficult to let my children take risks, but I try to keep in mind the adults I’d like them to become and I am always so proud when I let them take a risk and see them accomplish their goals.
    Catherine´s latest post: looking back – September 2009

  12. I think this is so important! Growing up I was very small for my age and that combined with being a girl made lots of people want to tell me not to do things because I might hurt myself! My father was always adamant that I be able do so, though, and told many older relatives to let me be.
    As long as what we were doing wouldn’t kill us, he was willing to let us get hurt in order to learn and grow, and I am very thankful for it!

  13. These are some great tips! It’s such a hard line to walk – I’m finding that I’m doing much better tolerating the risk-taking with my second than I was with my first.
    Kelly Coyle DiNorcia´s latest post: Safety at What Cost

  14. Thank you for this practical, straight forward advice. Risk management isn’t only for finance companies. It’s part of every day for all of us, and a very critical skill for kids to have.
    Barbara Allisen (aka Mrs. A)´s latest post: Off to School Toolbox: One-to-One Correspondence


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