Risky behaviours have a value

Risk taker: There is a difference between danger and risk.
Risk taker: There is a difference between danger and risk.  Photo: Getty

​Parents should support their kids' "risky outdoor play opportunities as a means of promoting children's health and active lifestyles," according to research just published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

What? That recommendation goes against the primary parental instinct that keeping our kids safe is always the highest priority.

Based upon a review of 21 studies of youngsters from ages 3 through 12, the experts found that the social, personal and health benefits of risky outdoor play outweighed the disadvantages.

In addition to the many health benefits of increased physical activity, the research documented many psychological benefits of allowing kids more freedom to fail and even incur minor injuries. When kids engaged in these behaviours, they developed skills in problem solving and improved peer interactions.

The experts were careful to differentiate between "risky" and "dangerous" behaviours, defining the former as "thrilling and exciting play that can include the possibility of physical injury."

That's exactly the dilemma faced by parents. How can we encourage our children to be adventurous but also keep them safe?

There are significant generational definitions regarding what is viewed as risky. When I got my first bike at age 10, I'd be away from home most of the day with my friends. We played baseball, hung around the park and built forts on a vacant lot near the gas station. My mum's rule was to "be home for dinner."

I'll admit I encountered my fair share of troublesome situations when left so unsupervised. However, I learned to work things out, knowing that I had a great mum and dad who were always there if things got too tough.

Such freedom would not be allowed today by most parents. The difference appears to be the perception of risk. We are terrified our kids might be abducted, suffer irreparable physical harm or get their feelings hurt by peers or others.

Advertisement

All of these things can and do occur. However, the actual perception of the severity of these risks is overestimated by parents, while the benefits of allowing our kids to engage in reasonable risks are minimised. The message from this research is that encouraging risk-taking behavior in our kids is generally safe.

Please don't take away your kids' bike helmets or permit them to ride in a car without seat belts. Follow the "law of moderation" and allow your children to learn to take reasonable risks, fail, get hurt and learn about life.

Dr. Gregory Ramey is the executive director of Dayton Children Hospital's Pediatric Center for Mental Health Resources.

The New York Times