Our son has always been a risk-taker. On a camping trip at 9 months old, he made a beeline for every campfire, trying to crawl right in and reach for the flames. Not yet 3, he ran full tilt into our pond, his legs churning forward even after his head was completely submerged.
My husband and I had both been adventuresome children, but as parents, we scrambled to get out ahead of our eager explorer. Looking beyond the models of semi-benign neglect we’d grown up with, we talked with other parents and turned to experts who were also exploring the nature of risk. We learned that there is a genetic predisposition to thrill-seeking and that our son was likely coded to pursue stimulation and novelty. We also learned a few strategies for managing his risk-taking style.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Counterintuitively, leaning into our son’s desire for danger was an important key to keeping him safe. Like that old improv exercise, we said, “Yes, and,” to our son wherever we could. Yes, he could chop wood, and we would teach him to swing an ax safely. Yes, he could jump into the river from that ledge, and we would show him how to read the water for hidden dangers.
Just as counterintuitively, the yes-and technique also worked for our risk-averse daughter. Aware that she often hung back and observed without participating, we made sure she had room to watch before encouraging her to give new things a try. Without that support, I’m not sure she would have learned to rock climb or to now claim she’s a better wood-splitter than her brother.
Our approach didn’t keep our children completely free from harm. Most of our son’s half-dozen broken bones happened right in front of us. Sometimes we had to stop him from exploring until he had listened to the “and” part: the guidance and safety. Other times, the hazards were too great, and we said no. But for both of our kids, the more they experimented and learned to control their bodies in physical space, and the more they understood safety as a key part of mastery, the more confident they became in the world at large.
Our son is now in high school. As it turns out, the approach to risk and reward we improvised when he was little is also helping him navigate the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
He has entered his teenage years at a moment when advances in neuroscience are showing us how the teenage brain is engineered to take risks. Teens are more sensitive than adults to dopamine, the chemical that mediates desire and payoff, and they receive higher doses of it, making them especially susceptible to risky behavior. Meanwhile, the emotional, limbic part of their brains won’t become fully connected to the frontal cortex—responsible for impulse control, learning from mistakes, and decision making—until their late 20s.
We share and debate the new research with our son. When he organized a recent hike with friends, we asked him to consider what would happen if it rained or they ran late, and we insisted he practice delayed gratification by completing his homework first. As he moves into adulthood, we won’t always be there to provide a structure for safety, but that’s OK. With the suite of skills he’s learning now, he’ll be carrying a safety net of his own.