life is risky

A few weeks ago, I watched one of my daughters ride her bike with no hands. I thought “be careful!” and “keep your hands on the handlebars!” and “don’t do that!”

But I said nothing.

She was wearing a helmet, on a quiet path, with no obvious obstacles or cars nearby. If she fell, she might get a bad case of road rash, or need stitches. She might even break an arm. But that was unlikely — she was really good.

I remembered riding my own bike with no hands on the wheel, the rush of wind in my face, the front tire slightly wobbly on the cracked pavement, the exhiliration of learning to balance the bike with my weight, the adrenaline that surged through me. I knew I could fall and scrape myself on the road, but I don’t think I did (I have no memories of that, at any rate). For those few minutes, I felt incredibly competent. I was confident of my own abilities to keep my bike moving smoothly forward.

I wanted that experience for my daughter. It’s what we all want for our kids.

The world is a risky place – it’s one of the first lessons of contemporary parenting. Danger lurks in every unprotected electrical outlet, at the top of every flight of ungated stairs. We are called to assess those risks for our own children from the very beginning: natural birth or epidural? Breast or bottle? Crib or co-sleeping? Organic food or not? Re-mortgage the house to pay for private school or support the public system?

But a certain amount of risk is normal. It’s part of being human. In fact, a total aversion to risk would make life boring and unlivable. Creativity is the flip side of caution. We need to take chances to learn things about the world and about ourselves. We need to let our toddlers take their first hesitant steps on wobbly jello legs, gently push our 5-year-olds into the strange new kindergarten classroom, let our pre-teens ride the city bus. We can’t keep them in that beautiful bubble forever, and we need them to believe that we know they can do it (no matter what old episodes of Rescue 911 replay endless loops in our neurotic minds).

The challenge is to do so thoughtfully, picking and choosing the kinds of risk, assessing the degree of danger and possible consequences. Measuring this up against chances of success. That takes judgement, and we know that judgement is one of the last things to develop in the teenage brain. The wiring of brain circuitry is a work in progress, and the prefrontal cortex (where executive functions such as decision-making, organizing, impulse control and judgment happen) aren’t fully developed until around the age of 25.

Add to this another wrinkle of adolescence  – the increased propensity to take risks and seek intense sensations. All this can suddenly make a lot clearer seemingly inexplicable activities such as car surfing, the choking game and websites like The Honesty Box.

For parents and educators, that means tailoring expectations to abilities. Leaving your 16-year-old home alone for the weekend may not just be a bad idea, it may end with their party trending on Twitter. This is why close supervision of teens is so important – knowing your teenage child’s whereabouts after school is correlated with lower rates of drug and alcohol use, pregnancy and delinquency, as well as making them less susceptible to peer pressure.

As a blog, RiskWithinReason looks beyond the usual risky activities we worry about with teens (alcohol, drugs, sex) to the computer-related technology around (and through) which they increasingly converge — social media like Facebook or MySpace, texting, sites like YouTube, online gaming, online gambling and other virtual communities of influence that complement (and sometimes overshadow) the real world friends and family of today’s teens.

RiskWithinReason is designed to be an online resource for parents, educators and mental health professionals interested in teens, technology and risk. The blog is not anti-technology — in fact, the argument is that we adults need to know more about these resources in order to facilitate our teens’ use of them. In addition to regular postings about different issues, you will also find links to related articles presented along brief commentary about what makes them interesting or relevant.

I welcome your comments, stories, observations and suggestions for different topics and links. I know I’m not the only parent out there who knows what it’s like to bite your tongue from time to time and watch your kids learn to spread their wings. On this occasion, it was totally worth it, but I keep a box of band-aids on hand for the times they fall, even though I am fully aware there are some hurts no band-aid will be able to fix. Sometimes, it’s a chance we have to take, but it’s one we must take thoughtfully, with the information we can gather. After all, that’s what parenting is all about.