Thursday, June 07, 2007

Managing risk

Teens are Hard-Wired for Risky Behaviour , Child Psychiatry researchers at NIMH claim. This is supposed to surprise us? Then again, I believe that much of what comprises typical adolescence is a cultural construct. So maybe this is news. Apparently it has an evolutionary advantage:

"It is risky to leave your parents and go out on your own, but that same behavior is also good for the gene pool."

Makes sense, though I'm not sure exactly how much "going out on your own" was involved in passing out of childhood in hunter-gatherer tribes. Some, I suppose.

Someone on an e-mail list recently suggested an evolutionary advantage for night-owling. Who would be the tribe's most logical night-fire tender, keeping watch for predators and attackers? Kids with almost-grown bodies but without the fully developed wisdom, skills and responsibilities of the adults.

These are interesting theories. We're certainly experiencing an extreme resurgence of night-owling with our adolescent these days. (Anyone got a tribal fire that needs tending through the night? I've got the kid for you.) Risk-taking? Not yet, really. I expect it'll come.

I've been reading Michael Ungar's "Too Safe For Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive" and I've had a "Reviving Ophelia"-type experience doing so, finding so much resonance with my own adolescence experiences, commenting over and over to myself "yes, this is what I felt when I was 14 and couldn't explain any of it!" Ungar's premise is that children and teens who are not given experience with reasonable, manageably risky situations will tend to take unreasonable risks. Neither situation is perfectly safe, but the former is much more safe than the latter.

On parenting message boards I've encountered parents who believe it is never safe to leave a child alone in a parked vehicle. Not at age 4 in a locked vehicle while securely harnessed in a carseat in minus-twenty weather so that mom can cross busy gas lanes for 90 seconds to pay at a kiosk. Not at age 8 with the doors locked, a walkie talkie or cellphone, the keys in mom's pocket, and the windows cracked while mom runs into the mall to pick up photos. Not at age 14 to finish a chapter in an interesting novel while mom runs into the grocery store for a few minutes.

I will unabashedly confess that my kids get left alone in the vehicle frequently. Part of this is due to the local climate of safety. We live in rural area far from cities, nowhere near major highways. If you're at a gathering and someone has parked their vehicle in such a way that you're blocked in, usually the keys are in the vehicle, and you just get in and move it if you need to get your own car out. No one locks their homes if they're just out for the day. Children walk to school alone from kindergarten age. That's the culture I live in, in my clean and safe little corner of Canada. But part of the reason I leave my kids unattended is that I've instinctively felt that this small amount of risk is good for them.

I don't do it mindlessly. We've worked up gradually to things like being left unattended in the minivan. Starting at age 8 or 9. Initially short spurts, with the vehicle locked, the older kids only, and walkie talkies at the ready. Gradually for longer periods, and without the walkie talkies. Eventually with Fiona too. Home alone? Climbing a rock bluff? Using kitchen knives? Lighting the woodstove? The same sort of graduated approach. Always moving towards more responsibility, with managed risks.

Part of the reason is that I don't want my kids growing up in fear. I want them to believe that the world is basically a decent place, that people are mostly kind and good. I don't want them operating on the premise that everyone they don't know is a potential predator, every tree a skull fracture waiting to happen.

ButUngar's book has made me realize that this isn't the whole story. My children need experience with reasonable, managed risk, because if they don't get it, they are likely to do what I did in adolescence, which is to take unreasonable, unmanaged risks.

It seems to take us human beings a lot of effort to keep risk in perspective. I know parents who won't let their school-aged kids make their own toast because it's too dangerous, but who unthinkingly pop them into the minivan for totally discretionary trips to the park or the corner store or a friend's house. I know families who won't let their preschoolers eat non-organic apples offered at a playdate, but who drive them around with just adult seatbelts on. Despite our big brains we humans are not very good at keeping the big picture, at sorting through long-term and short-term risks, in comparing the rare nasties with the more commonplace serious events. The bottom line is that life on planet earth is pretty safe these days, so we're talking about risks that are very small, risks that live in the abstract world of statistical probability too small to be appreciated in concrete ways.

My 10-year-old might have a 1 in 1.7 million chance of coming to significant harm because I leave him in the minivan while I grocery shop. It's tempting to think "That's a small risk, but it's always better to be safe than sorry. I couldn't live with myself if he came to harm." But Ungar's book points out that there's a hidden risk that has to be balanced out. Simplistically speaking, if my 10-year-old grows up without the experience of gradually incremented risk and responsibility, like staying in the minivan alone, at age 16 he might end up having a 1 in 20 risk of coming to significant harm due to unmanaged high risk behaviours like underage drinking, drug use, unprotected sex and general physical recklessness. Maybe this really is the choice: 1 in 1.7 million at age 10, or 1 in 20 at age 16.

I'll choose the 1 in 1.7 million, thank you very much, and Noah will happily amuse himself reading Asterix books while I grocery shop.


  1. Your thoughts are very much my own, and I too have allowed my boys the unsupervised risk while I run pay a tab or grab a gallon of milk or even make a deposit at the bank--Lord knows admitting it makes me a horrid, selfish and uncaring mother--but like you state and the book states, these smaller risks are what prepare our children for larger risks.

    I haven't read the book, but I have put it on my Wish Lists--thanks for the tip.

  2. Anonymous2:46 pm

    We have a night owl-xtreme (16), a night owl (13), and a night-owl-in-training (9). And things will get worse before they get better, because dh has just accepted a job 2,500 miles away at an observatory. His private theory is that teenagers are biologically programmed to stay awake at night because it facilitates their courtship rituals!

    When my youngest daughter was 6, she was shocked to find that a 9-year old friend did not know how to use a bread knife, use keys to open the car, or use a toaster oven, toaster, or matches: things dd had been doing (with appropriate supervision) for a couple of years.


  3. Very informative post. I haven't heard of the book, but I appreciated your summary of it. We live in a small town and I feel comfortable leaving the kids in the car for short periods of time while I run in somewhere. We've done the walkie-talkie thing, too. The idea of gradually incremented risk makes a lot of sense, happy to know I've been doing something good for the kids without realizing it! By the way, I'm tagging you for the 8 Things meme, come by my blog for the details ;)


This blog is moving to archive-only status. Please consider posting comments instead at the active version of the blog at

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.