Taking the Right Risks

Written by Dr. John Cairney (Joint Professorship with the Department of Family Medicine and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neuroscience, McMaster University)


Ulrich Beck, a sociologist, once described the modern world we live in as a “risk society”.

Unlike any other point in our history, we live today with a constant barrage of information related to risks. Just think for a moment about the never-ending amount of health-related research in the news that talks about how to reduce your risk of disease and premature death.

One of the questions Beck was interested in was what impact does this knowledge of risks have on us and our society? It seems to me that this “risk society” has impacted our lives in relation to children’s play.

I hear almost everyday how concerns over risk (fear of injury and, often, fear of liability) influence our policies around what kids in school can and can’t do. How many times have you heard “walk, don’t run” in your child’s school?

I also hear concerns from parents. Some parents are afraid to let their children play on their own or walk to school because of safety concerns. Yet, if you think back to our own childhood (especially if you are over 40), walking to school and playing on our own without direct parental supervision was part of being a kid.

There is a lot of attention in research and the media about how things like not walking to school, in combination with video games, TV and smartphones, are driving the obesity epidemic in children and youth. That thought is only part of the problem. When I walked to school on my own as a child and when I played on my own as a child, I was not only getting the benefits of being physically active, I was learning and practicing how to deal with and manage risk.

If we live in a risk society, should we not be educating our children on how best to cope with it? I would argue, the sooner we start this, the better. I would rather my child learns how to negotiate risks now, when the stakes are low (skinned knee on the playground) then when she (or he - I have two) get behind the wheel of an automobile. That does not mean, necessarily, that I would let my 6-year old walk to school on her own. What it does mean is that as a parent, I have to constantly ask myself:

  • Am I letting fear get the better of me?”
  • Am I trying to overprotect my child to prevent all injuries and risk?


Or, am I taking care of reasonable risks while still allowing her to figure things out on her own?

It is not easy. But, we really have to start thinking this way. By letting my child ride a bike (yes, with a helmet), climb a tree, go skating or skiing, and run and tumble, I am helping her to develop fundamental movement skills and increase physical activity. I am also allowing her to figure out what she needs to do to be safe and what risks she can take and still be safe. I need to ask the question, how do I create safe environments for her to play, without taking all risk out of the equation?

It may mean that she gets injured. That is not all bad. It is part of learning and it is part of taking risks. Eliminating risk is simply not an option. It is a present, constant feature of life. The sooner we accept this, figure out how to manage it ourselves, and create spaces for our children to do the same, the better for the long-term health and development of our children.


Read more on what the media has to say about this topic: