I love watching kids learn to ski. The sight of children fearlessly attacking the bunny slope, taking periodic tumbles, and laughing in heaps of snow always reminds me of how resilient kids are, and how much adults can learn from them.
When I was a middle school teacher, I always had a few kids who constantly volunteered – either to answer questions, participate in an activity, or share their work with the class. There were also students who never volunteered – those that tried to hide when an opportunity arose to take a risk in front of their peers. The non-volunteers were as capable – sometimes more capable – than many of the volunteers. Why, I wondered, did some students shy away from taking risks, in what I assumed was a safe, accepting classroom? More important, I wondered how I could try to bring these students to a place where they felt comfortable volunteering, knowing that they may make a mistake in the process.
In the following guest post, Growing Leaders founder Tim Elmore discusses how risk-taking – and even the occasional failure – can build confidence and leadership skills in children. He also offers tips for parents on how to encourage their children to take risks, learn from their mistakes, and pick themselves up after a fall.
The Importance of Raising Risk-Taking Kids
By Tim Elmore, founder/president of Growing Leaders (www.GrowingLeaders.com)
Think back to when you were a teen—trying to fit in, harnessing newfound independence, and going through the trials and tribulations of forming your own identity. For many of us, this was a period of making silly mistakes and learning lessons. One just popped into your head, didn’t it?
Obviously, negative risk-taking should not be tolerated—dangerous or illegal activities or any kind of substance abuse—but today’s well-adjusted adults were the teens who took risks and tried new things. And we, as adults, must be the facilitators. We often treat our kids as if they are too fragile, it’s as simple as that. We want to boost their self-esteem, make them happy and protect them from life’s hardships. Over the last 20 years, parents and teachers have been on a track to eliminate failure, and ultimately risk, from our children’s lives.
For example—win or lose, every little league baseball player on the team gets a trophy. While our intentions are pure, this will ultimately diminish their self-esteem and give them false ideals of happiness and reality. And to their demise, when they do make it to the real world, they will find out fast that not everyone receives a trophy for showing up.
According to a report published by Harvard Business Review, “Children of risk-averse parents have lower test scores and are slightly less likely to attend college than offspring of parents with more tolerant attitudes toward risk.” So, how can we do something about this? By helping our teens take calculated risks (sports, clubs, jobs/internships, etc.). Childhood may be about safety and self-esteem, but as a student matures, risk and achievement are the building blocks to forming a healthy identity and confidence level.
Risk Taking Leads to Leadership Development
Why is it so difficult for young people to step up into leadership roles today? While we’re working on a “diagnosis and prescription,” the most common issues are right in front of our faces. Here, fear of failure versus risk taking is key. We have inadvertently taught our kids that failure is bad. And as a result, most young people are conditioned to avoid failure at all costs. For many, their mantra is: if there is a chance I will fail, I won’t try.
How did this happen? Overprotection. It’s simple—in an effort to protect our children, we tell them not to climb too high on the playground because they might fall and hurt themselves. They internalize this consequence as a scary feeling and end up living fearful of pain and failure.
Anxiety, phobias and depression are more prevalent in kids today. According to research from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), “Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children. Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.” Furthermore, an adolescent who doesn’t take calculated risks is often risk-adverse in their adult life.
Here are four tips for encouraging risk-taking kids:
1. Communicate a different message: Let them know failure is not fatal or final. Tell them you expect them to try new things and even fail along the way. Instill the fact that this is a natural and crucial part of life’s journey. And they will bounce back.
2. Give them safe projects at first, to “test their wings”: In the beginning, acquaint them with failure by giving them something that won’t have huge consequences attached to it, if they do fail. Give them “training wheels.”
3. Tell them stories of your past failures: I do this both with students and with my own two children. They love hearing stories of the bonehead mistakes I made—they are able to see how I laughed, survived it all and turned out just fine.
4. Start them on teams before you request individual projects: If it helps, put them in pairs or small teams, so if they fail, they’ve got company. This will likely enable them to ease into the deep end of the pool alone…eventually.
I would love to hear your personal experiences with lessons learned through failure, or those lessons you’ve taught your children. Let’s encourage one another. Here’s to embracing failure and taking risks!
Tim Elmore is founder and president of Growing Leaders (www.growingleaders.com), an international non-profit created to develop young leaders who can impact and transform society. He works with parents, teachers, coaches and mentors across the globe on how to create a balanced environment that enables children to lead themselves well and influence others in a positive way. Tim latest book is Artificial Maturity: Helping Kids Meet the Challenge of Becoming Authentic Adults.