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Risky Business

Youth & Risky Behaviour ~ When Is Too Much Safety Unsafe?

There is a lot of talk about safety in sports and it always seems that the new generation is willing to take larger risks than the veterans of the sport. When we look at children in sport, We think of kids as being underdeveloped and when they mature they will ‘smarten up’ but is it our job to help them smarten up and take less risks?

“Think about it from the child’s perspective. Let’s say you are at the playground and your child is trying to climb a little higher than you are comfortable with. For them, they are thinking, how do I move my body, how does the world work. They are figuring that all out for themselves. Let’s say you come in and swoop in and say get down, stop. So what they are learning is somebody else needs to decide for them whats safe and that they cant figure that out for themselves. That may affect their self confidence and they also get to think the world is a scary place, a dangerous place.” - Dr. Mariana Brussoni

The culture of “Safety” has been growing in the last few generations but is that a good thing? A lot of research has been done on the topic and the overall conclusion seems to be, the more you protect a child from experiencing life, even the tough moments, the more you stop them from learning about life as well. There is a balance of risk in every single behaviour humans do. Each person has their own individual comfort level of what risks they are willing to take but what determines how much risk an athlete will take?

Research shows us that children who have higher self confidence generally tend to take more risks. The interesting conundrum is that by having a parent overprotect a child, they are either lowering their self-esteem or confidence in one's own worth or abilities, by taking away chances for the child to learn, or they are making the child even more confident by always saving the day. So, the child doesn’t learn that they will have to clean up their own mistakes eventually. Either way it leads to a misunderstanding of realistic expectations.

Interestingly, in the second option, the parent may actually be increasing the child’s willingness to take risks simply by creating a false safety net. This makes them falsely think they will be fine in high risk situations. Showing them when they are babies what is inherently dangerous, such as a hot stove, or a busy road, gives them parameters to learn boundaries. Obviously you don’t want your child to get hurt. But at some point it could actually be safer to let them ‘fall down’ so they set their own limits. Once is fine and is a sign of parental care but when you do it all the time it is not hard to see how a child’s world view will be tuned to assuming they will always be ok.

Sam Peltzman, a University of Chicago economist, in 1975 studied automotive safety innovations (e.g., seatbelts) installed since 1966 to determine if they reduced injuries. He found the innovations indeed reduced death and injury per accident. But this was offset by a rise in pedestrian injuries and property damage.  He concluded, “Risky driving has a price: the possibility of getting hurt.  Seatbelts and other safety devices reduce the price; making risky driving cheaper, thus more people will do it leading to more accidents.” His research earned him the term The Peltzman Effect.

The Peltzman effect, in essence, is the idea that when you put more safety regulations on a particular activity, people tend to assume they will be safer and naturally take on more risk. This effect has been noted by researchers in the safety development of cars, such as seat belts and even the introduction of mandatory helmets in hockey. Yes, they both save lives, but they also increase the risks that people are willing to take when they drive or increase aggressiveness by hockey players. Simply put, parents are not necessarily helping their child by protecting them from the ups and downs of life.

The young developing mind is analyzing the world and to shelter them from the reality means you are actually just delaying the learning process, unless as a parent you think you will be beside your child every moment of their lives. I know many parents who would cringe at the very thought of that much undivided attention.

Set your child up for success by providing them an environment that allows them to fall down. Those who know how to fall down, are much quicker to get up. Research from

Elizabeth Kirby and her team has shown that in rats, risky behaviour can help with fear extinction. Any athlete knows that fear is a huge issue, so by coddling a child you may actually be making them overconfident as well as reduce their ability to conquer fear.

"This increase in proliferation is correlated with selective activation of the hyper-plastic newborn neurons and enhanced retention of fear extinction 2 weeks after the stressor.”

So, to sum it up, risk is necessary for a young child to learn what is appropriate and not appropriate. Yes, it is easy to get wrapped up in the fear of having someone close to you getting hurt but research shows that trying to shelter them from real world experiences really just delays the education process and may even push them into unsafe situations with overconfidence. Give kids a sense of reality. Do not try to shape their reality for them. It seems to simply distort their reality causing a new array of problems that cant be solved from over protecting them.


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