Encouraging Bravery While Teaching Caution

Maybe you, like I, hope that our children will grow up to be stronger and braver than we are.  In my case, that doesn’t take much. As a child, teenager and young adult,  I passed up many opportunities for fun adventures because I was afraid.  I didn’t go water skiing because I was afraid of how I would look in my grandmother’s swimsuit (I had forgotten mine.)  I didn’t go on the hike because I was afraid of heights.  I would never have considered touching a snake.  Since I regret the way I acted, I spend much of my time now encouraging my kids to be risk takers.

I encourage my kids to climb trees, hike to the top of the mountain, and pick up the snake.  They catch lizards (yuck!) touch toads, and wriggle up to their knees in mud.  But as we hiked along today, we saw this:

It made me stop and think about how in encouraging our children to be brave and strong, we also need to teach caution.  Honestly, the most dangerous snakes they will encounter in life are not the ones that could bite them and inject venom into their veins.  We need to encourage them to be risk takers but teach them which risks to take.  Here are some ideas I have about how to do that:

  • Talking to our kids about what things are truly dangerous, or how to help themselves out of a dangerous situation is terribly important.  So when we are hiking in the desert, we talk about how to orient yourself (see those mountains over there?  If you were lost, you would need to keep walking toward them until you reached the road.)  When we are climbing a cliff, we talk about the careful steps we would need to come back down, and about making sure we CAN come back down before we start up.  When we are inside a slot canyon, we talk about where we could climb up if a flash flood came down canyon.  When we are walking through the city, we talk about making eye contact and looking at people who scare us so that we don’t look like victims.  We talk about letting a thief have our money rather than fighting for something unimportant.  We hope that all this talk helps give our kids a more adult outlook on risks.
  • Ask them the question, “What is the worst that could happen?”  If the answer is, “I would get really wet and have to hike out with wet clothes,” it’s probably an acceptable risk.  On the other hand, if the answer is, “I could fall and break both legs,” it may not be an acceptable risk.  And if the answer is, “Death,” then it certainly is not an acceptable risk unless the reward is equally great.
  • Education is everything.  To help our kids be confident about which risks are acceptable, they must be certain of their knowledge.  If they are certain what a rattlesnake looks like, they won’t be afraid to touch a little garden racer.  Have you considered a short self-defense course for your daughters?  Have you thought about what a little training with climbing ropes could do for your family?  What about fire drills?  All of these things help certainty.  Certainty builds confidence and caution — but in appropriate situations.

Do you think risk taking is an important character trait to teach our children?  How do you encourage your children to bravery?  Is caution easy or hard for you to teach?  Please leave me a comment below.

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  1. Great post. I encourage my boys to have fun, and not be afraid. However I do find myself nervous now at how comfortable they are. It is an interesting balance.

  2. Absolutely. As an early childhood teacher and mama, I avoid the words “be careful,” which I hear bandied about too readily and generically all the time. I encourage kids to take risks within the realm of what their own good sense allows. As I tell parents in my program all the time, they generally don’t try something they can’t yet do. I support, but don’t give kids a false sense of security with my “help.” For example, when kids are climbing a playground structure or tree, I’ll stand near if they feel they need it, hold hands out to spot them, offer encouragement and verbal assistance, but don’t physically “help” (do it for them). I find then they have a really good sense of what they can safely do, and know how to get out of any situation they put themselves into (I don’t put them up on structures they can’t get to themselves). I also do the “find your way out of here” talk, and sometimes have the kids lead the way back when, for example, we’re out in the woods. blah, blah, blah…I’m going on too long. You can tell risk-taking with sensible guidelines is important to me!


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