To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out is to risk involvement.
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To hope is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing
The person who risks nothing, does nothing … has nothing … is nothing.
— William Arthur Ward (1921-1994)
IN AN EARLIER LIFE, I WAS A guide for an adventure education company. Our clients were international high school students from ex-pat schools, mostly based in Asia. They were the sons and daughters of diplomats, heads of state, leaders of industry … and were, for the most part, lovely kids. They had come to New Zealand for an adventure as part of their curriculum, and for the 10 or so days they were with us, it was our job to make sure they had an unforgettable experience!
We fly-fished in central Otago, kayaked in Golden Bay, mountain biked in Queenstown, hunted and camped in the Central Plateau, surfed in Whangamatā. We lit fires, slept in bivvies, cooked wild venison, and hiked … everywhere! They took risks, and went home with a bunch of new skills and a new appreciation of what they’re capable of.
To say they were out of their comfort zones would be an understatement, but they loved it. And during our final debriefs, many of them shared (often with tears in their eyes) that it had been the best experience of their lives.
Over the years, we worked with a number of the same schools and got to know the teachers who travelled with these kids. I remember one in particular, an American named Miles – a mad-keen fly fisherman and a staunch advocate of the programmes we ran. He was always drumming up senior students from his school in Hong Kong, encouraging them to choose New Zealand (and more specifically, us) for their interim semester overseas trip. He was a real believer in using the outdoors to challenge and stretch people and had seen many students overcome their fears, becoming confident and capable – ready for whatever the future held.
During his last trip with us, he recounted a heated conversation he’d had with the school leadership before coming to New Zealand. They had looked through our risk management documents – which were the same as every other year – and decided that managing risk wasn’t good enough anymore. Instead, they wanted to see all risks eliminated. Miles argued (rightly so) that risk in the outdoors couldn’t be completely eliminated – that it can be managed and therefore minimised, but was impossible to eradicate.
They begrudgingly accepted his argument, but the writing was on the wall. Unfortunately, that was the final trip his school did with us – the powers-that-be were too fearful to allow their children to participate in an outdoor adventure because of what might happen. For them, the New Zealand Into the Wild trip was too risky.
Unfortunately, this obsession with safety isn’t unique to schools in Hong Kong. Many western countries have an over-cautious approach – and New Zealand is no exception. We see this in nearly every aspect of life – from government law to the school playground – and even to how we parent our kids. And while the intention is good (i.e. keeping people safe from injury or death), there are some important unintended outcomes we should be aware of.
But before we talk more about that, I need to get something off my chest: my local transfer station is the perfect example of safety-gone-mad. Up until a couple of years ago, I was able to reverse my trailer full of rubbish (all compostable, of course) right to the edge of the pit. A nice little curb stopped my wheels from going over, and then it was simply a matter of dropping the tailgate and pushing the whole lot in. Easy! Today however, in our post-dangerous world, there’s now a four-foot safety barrier alongside the pit, and the curb has been moved about three metres in from the edge! You have to carry each piece of rubbish to the pit and throw it through the gap in the barrier.
I asked one of the workers (he’d been there 20 years) how many vehicles and people had fallen in during that time. He said, no vehicles and only one person … and she was blind. True story!
Anyway, my point is that the worst impact of our obsession with safety and lack of risk-taking is its effect on the development of our children … the unintended consequences.
THE RISKS OF ELIMINATING RISK
Before we go further, let’s define risk: in an adventure education environment, it can be defined as the potential to lose or gain something of value. While found in other risky activities (like share trading), this seeming contradiction is fundamental to the value of outdoor pursuits. The presence of risk creates uncertainty – and potential losses: like a broken bone, or loss of equipment, or perhaps panic and anxiety. However, it also creates potential gains: like increased confidence and self-worth, resilience, health and fitness, and fun!
It’s these gains that make exposure to risk essential for our children’s healthy development. And numerous studies show that allowing our kids to face risks helps them develop confidence, competence, and courage – the skills needed to become well-rounded, flourishing adults.
But the opposite is also true. When we try to eliminate risks in childhood, other kinds emerge. Studies show that when risk is removed, we reduce the ability of our kids …
- to take initiative and be self-starters
- to thrive by themselves
- to be self-reliant
- to show competence, creativity, and critical thinking skills
- to face fears and act with courage
In his book, No Fear: Growing up in a risk-averse society, author Tim Gill suggests that if we treat children like they are “incompetent, fragile, unable to deal with adversity, [and] incapable of learning how to look after themselves”, they’ll sadly sink to meet these lowered expectations.
Ultimately, of course, risk aversion doesn’t just affect children. These kids are growing up, and creating a new class of society – ‘the complacent class’ – young adults who are less innovative, crave comfort over conflict and risk, and are in fact, slowing down the changes needed for our society to improve and progress … Ouch!
MANAGING THE RISK
So … let me be clear on one thing: I’m not suggesting we throw safety out with the bathwater. And I’m not advocating releasing our precious children into the wild to be raised by wolves! I’m all about being safe! But there’s a line between complete negligence and being an overprotective helicopter parent! Common sense should prevail – but here are some thoughts on managing risk.
There are three levels of risk:
- absolute risk: the worst thing that could happen
- residual risk: the risk that’s still there once the absolute risk has been adjusted by safety controls, and
- perceived risk: a subjective assessment of risk by an individual which will vary according to personality, experience, skill, age, etc.
Let’s take kayaking as an example. The absolute risk would be that someone might drown, so we put safety measures in place to manage that worst-case scenario: e.g. by wearing life-jackets; ensuring skill-levels are appropriate (and teaching them if necessary); paddling in safe conditions; having an experienced adult paddle with them; etc. This then makes the residual risk (of drowning) almost negligible. Now, if your child is afraid of water (or sharks!), the perceived risk could be quite high as far as they’re concerned! So it then becomes your job to alleviate their fear, encourage them, and explain how safe the activity actually is.
The same approach can be taken with almost any ‘risky’ activity. Whether riding a bike to a friend’s house, climbing a tree, skateboarding down a hill, or lighting a fire …
EMBRACE THE RISK:
Most kids are drawn to risky activities like a moth to a flame! It’s part of their design! So it’s our job as parents to encourage their natural desire by:
- recognising that participation in risky activities is important for our children’s development
- helping them manage those risks according to their age, ability, environment etc
- then, once we’ve prepared them, letting them go and embrace the risk!
And, if we have a child who is nervous or risk-averse, we should gently and carefully introduce risky activities, making sure they experience success. Because for them, it’ll be all about their perceived risk.
At the end of the day, we must prepare our children to survive and thrive without us. We need to trust our kids – and give them a chance to shine!
We’ve gotta risk it for the biscuit!
FOR THOSE THAT AREN’T AWARE, MIKE WAS ACTUALLY RAISED BY WOLVES. THIS BECOMES OBVIOUS WHEN WATCHING HIM EAT VENISON.