Risk Taking in Early Childhood: When Is It Appropriate?

A child pulling two others in a wagon

Knowing when to give a child more independence and when to set limits is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting. We live in a culture that often protects children from risk, but is that always healthy or helpful?

How Does Risk Taking Benefit Children?

  • Taking risks in a safe environment builds confidence and teaches valuable life skills.
  • Children learn self-regulation, e.g., “how high is too high in this tree?” or “how fast can I ride my bike and still stop quickly?”
  • Allowing children appropriate independence sends the message, “I trust you.”
  • Taking risks helps you see areas where your child might need additional guidance or support.

Here is some guidance on how to negotiate a healthy balance of risk and safety with your child and simple strategies for slowly letting out the reins.

Encouraging Healthy Risk Taking Behavior

Analyze the Risk vs. Benefits

Two good questions to ask when deciding if an activity is appropriate for your child are, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” and “What’s the best thing that could happen?” As parents, we sometimes make decisions based on fear, rather than reality. Asking ourselves these questions can help us be more objective.

Consider Your Child

Children develop at their own paces. What might be completely appropriate for one child might not be for another child.

Consider your child’s level of mastery with motor skills when deciding about, say, a tricycle or playground equipment.

Examine an elementary-age child’s ability to follow directions, understand consequences, and make reasonable choices when thinking about whether your child is ready for activities such as walking to school alone, or spending the night at a friend’s house.

Assess the Environment

Our country and world have become much smaller with the coming of social media and digital communication, yet the environments we live in still vary widely. It’s important to be aware of the realities of our own particular communities – like crime rate, traffic, and overall safety – and base our decisions on those realities.

Teach Skills and Set Limits

Restricting children’s opportunities limits their growth. Allowing them too much freedom too soon leaves them unprepared for potential challenges. Breaking activities down by skill is a helpful strategy that can bridge the gap between too little and too much freedom.

For example, before you allow a child to climb trees, spend time climbing playground structures. Then, when your child is ready to explore a tree, show her how to choose trees with low-lying branches and how to identify limbs and branches that will support your child.

Anticipating the challenges your child might experience and the necessary skills ahead of time will help them develop those skills for later use.

Practice Together

As you practice challenging activities together, slowly give more freedom in incremental steps. In general, by high school, children should be able to do their own shopping and get from place to place safely. Reaching this point happens gradually.

When children are young, we take them with us grocery shopping and talk about what we’re doing. As a child reaches late elementary age, we might give them a few dollars and allow them to find something in the store. We might ask a middle-schooler to go into a store independently to buy a few items. In this slow, incremental way, children learn the skills they need gradually while we’re available to supervise and offer correction.

Is Risk Taking Healthy or Helpful?

Yes! As parents, the best strategy is to find a balance between overprotectiveness and nonchalance. That middle ground allows children to try new things, make mistakes, and solve problems within a safe structure. Thus, giving them the best chance to learn the essential skills they’ll need for adulthood.

Resources Related to Risk Taking in Young Children

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A child pulling two others in a wagon