Archives for posts with tag: risk

Texting. Talking on the phone. Eating. Searching for a new song. We are so accustomed to our car culture that it’s easy to forget how dangerous driving really can be. A single moment’s distraction is all it takes to turn the family minivan into a deadly weapon.

And it’s only going to get worse. According to the Canadian Automobile Association, texting recently overtook impaired driving as the No. 1 safety concern among drivers. And since 95% of Canadians between 14 and 17 send or receive text messages (according to a poll quoted in the Globe & Mail), this is a problem that is only likely to grow.


To read the rest of this post and to learn more about the riskwithinreason workshops offered to parents, educators and teens, click here.


Should your preschooler be taught about the dangers of smoking? Is kindergarten too young to start talking about alcohol? Does your 8-year-old need to learn about illegal drugs?

Parents often ask me whether it’s possible to give too much information about risky activities, or whether there are clear-cut rules on what kids of different ages should be taught. This is particularly a concern for parents with their younger children, who worry that having older siblings might expose them to this information before they are ready.

Hear are a few guidelines on how to handle this:

Talk: early, often, frankly. Instead of having the dreaded “Talk” about sex, smoking, drugs or alcohol when you feel your kid is ready to handle it, you should make talking frankly about these things fit into regular, on-going (age-appropriate) discussions from the time they are old enough to follow a conversation. See a “No Smoking” sign in a restaurant? Point it out. Someone uses the word “drunk” and she wants to know what it means, explain it using simple words (such as “When someone drinks too much wine or beer they act silly and can get into big trouble”).

Preschoolers should know that smoking is bad for your health. They should understand that we only take medicines that the doctor, a parent or trusted caregiver offers them to get better (small children may mistake colourful pills for candy, so this is an important one). They should start to learn your family’s values about drinking. Maybe you avoid all alcohol. Maybe you have a beer now and again. Maybe you drink wine to mark certain religious holidays or ceremonies.

Kids 5 and under should be taught the correct terms for their body parts, so they can speak up clearly if someone touches them inappropriately. It’s been suggested that pedophiles tend to avoid children who know the right words for body parts, because they are used to speaking frankly with their parents and thus more likely to report on the abuse.

School-aged children can be given more information about these things, and you should introduce knowledge about illegal drug use. They should also be given information about the physical and emotional changes of puberty, and have regular discussion about peer pressure. As they get older, you’ll need to provide more detailed information. We know kids as young as 9 or 10 can be gambling (poker or online) – discuss the risks when they are young enough to listen.

Keep their maturity level in mind when deciding how much detail to give: A child in second grade doesn’t necessarily need to know what pot or ecstasy are; a child in fifth grade really does. And if you find yourself talking too much and your kids’ eyes have started to glaze over in boredom, stop. Reassess. Pick it up later in a simpler way.

Listen: without judgment, for what they are really asking or trying to tell you, for insight into their concerns. Don’t go in with your own agenda. Don’t dominate the discussion. Make sure you are actually sure what they want to know before you bombard them with more information than they need.

Start with addressing their questions in simple terms. A four-year-old who wants to know if smoking can make you die doesn’t need to know about nicotine addiction or hear words like cancer or emphysema. They may simply be worried about a beloved uncle, and want reassurance that if he stops, he can get healthier. Or that there are doctors who can help him. Or that it’s really, really hard to stop smoking once you start, so we need to be patient.

Give information is small, easy-to-manage increments. Use age-appropriate words. If they ask questions and want to know more, it’s OK to follow their lead.

Inform yourself: Make sure you know what you’re talking about. There are many excellent books, pamphlets and websites for parents seeking to know more about teens and high-risk behaviors.

Parents sometimes worry about their children’s innocence, making them grow up prematurely with this information. But if you don’t tell them, they will learn from friends, television, music and the world around this. You can’t guarantee that they will get the correct information. More importantly, you missing the opportunity to provide your own values and moral framework.

Parents are sometimes shocked to learn how young kids are when they first experiment with smoking, drugs, alcohol, sex and gambling (typically grades 5, 6 and 7). Since we know that the younger kids are when they start, the higher the risk of developing problems, we need to try and put off that initial experimentation as long as possible (if not avoid it altogether).

According to the 2008 Quebec Survey on Smoking, Alcohol, Drugs and Gambling in High School Students conducted by L’insitut de la
statistique du Quebec, young people who experiment with smoking, alcohol, drugs or gambling had:

  • Their first cigarette at the age of 12.7 years (40% of kids will try smoking before high school)
  • Their first alcoholic beverage at the age of 12.6 years
  • Their first experience with marijuana at 13.4 years
  • Their first experience with gambling as early as 11.6 years.

Other research suggests that 7th grade is the typical starting point for experimentation with oral sex (which 40% of teens believe doesn’t qualify as “sex”).

And what about those younger siblings who seem to know way too much, way too soon? Truth is, there isn’t that much you can do about it if they have older siblings around. But instead of mourning their precociousness and premature loss of innocence, remember that knowledge is power. If your kids are well-informed, they are less likely to believe the rumours, dangerous half-truths and misinformation circulated in the schoolyard.

They will be better prepared to resist trying things that could get them into big trouble. And that, ultimately, is the goal we all need to keep in mind.


Had a fabulous time at the Montreal Families Magazine Parenting Workshop this past Sunday. We were thrilled to see a capacity crowd of concerned moms (and some dads) come out to hear me and study skills expert Carolyn Melmed speak on a gorgeous, sunny September afternoon.

A number of great questions came out of the audience after my presentation, some of which I’ve heard from parents before. I figure if one parent is wondering or worrying about something, chances are there are plenty of others out there with the same question, so I’m going to focus on them one at a time in upcoming blog posts. Today’s subject is a really common question – what is the right age to let our kids get Facebook accounts?

The answer to this depends on a few things — your child’s interest, maturity levels, responsibility, readiness as well as your personal values and comfort with technology. Just as it would be impossible to answer a question about what is the right age for learning how to read or developing an interest in romantic relationships, knowing when to let your kids onto Facebook depends on a number of factors.

First of all, Facebook itself has determined that kids under 13 should not become members, and they state this on their registration page. Getting around that is as simple as fudging the birth year information (which is always a good idea for privacy and identity theft reasons anyway), but parents have to feel comfortable with breaking this simple rule. Some parents are not.

Next you have ask what they intend to do on the site. If it’s mostly for the gaming, well, there are plenty of other games on the Internet (and on gaming systems), but the truth is that Facebook games are a relatively harmless way to spend time on the site. Raising virtual potatoes on Farmville is no one’s definition of risky behaviour.

If they want it because “everyone else has it,” I’m sympathetic but skeptical. First of all, not everyone has it, but an awful lot of kids do. And it’s hard (but not impossible or even inadvisable) to resist the tremendous adolescent social pressure to be like everyone else. I’ve only recently forgiven my parents for banning television on school days when I was a kid. Missing the previous evening’s broadcast of Charlie’s Angels certainly had repercussions in the schoolyard the next day, but my grades steadily improved without the distraction. And I turned out mostly OK.

How do you think your kids will manage its addictive powers? If you will have to constantly negotiate their time on Facebook, if it will cut into homework, face-to-face socialization, school, family time or reading, then think this through carefully. You may need to set up strict rules for when and how long they can be on. You will need to establish consistent consequences for breaking these rules. You will need to stick to them.

Talk to them about cyberbullying. Talk about respecting others, handling themselves with dignity. Discuss the fact that stuff on the Internet is impossible to erase. That things can be copied and forwarded an infinite number of times. They should never, ever post anything they wouldn’t want their teacher to see. Or their grandmother. Or their future boss. Or their future children.

Talk about how nuance and irony don’t play out so well in typed comments. It’s easy to misunderstand something that was meant to be a joke. They need to understand how they can easily hurt someone else through ignorance.

Are you concerned about your kids’ privacy online? You should be. Consider getting them to creatively misspell their name or use a pseudonym their friends will know. Set up a Google alert with this name too. Inform yourself about Facebook’s many privacy controls and stay abreast of new developments. Configure them to the highest degree of privacy, which still allows friends to view their posts and picture: for “only friends” (not “friends of friends”). I’m working on a post about how to do this, in case you don’t feel comfortable figuring it out on your own, so stay tuned.

Link their account to your email and keep a record of their password. Many kids resist this, but it’s a basic requirement in my eyes. You will get all notifications of friend requests, posts and tagged pictures. You will not need to read the vast majority of them (which would be a chore), but you will be able to monitor their activity quite easily.

Insist they friend you. And never, ever comment on their walls or posts. Having a parent is just too embarrassing for words when you are 12 or 14, so respect that.

Occasionally review their home feeds (also called news feeds) with them. Not as a punishment or lecture, but as a conversation. What are their friends talking about? What kind of language is used? Does anything make them or you uncomfortable? Talk about that.

As time goes on, and they demonstrate consistent responsibility, they can earn more and freedom. You will need to do these things less often. They can earn their privacy, their passwords, the right to link their account to their own email. Don’t abuse the freedom you are given, but keep a close eye until you feel confident they are capable of handling themselves appropriately.

All of this begs the question: “What is risky behaviour?” In a nutshell, it’s activities that could potentially lead to harm, both for your child or those around them. It can interfere with other normal activities in their lives. It can cause them to make poor choices. It can be immoral, illegal or unhealthy.

So where would Facebook fit into that definition?

One research study found that spending time on Facebook tends to lower kids’ grades, promote narcissistic tendencies and lead to anxiety and depression. But the same study also found that the social media site can help kids hone their empathetic tendencies by offering each other support online. They also found it could help introverted teens learn how to interact with others in a way that made them feel more comfortable.

There are a lot of reasons why parents might not want their kids on Facebook until they feel they are old enough. Some parents just try to delay it as long as possible. There is so simple pat answer to this question.

What did I do? Well, as I wrote in this Montreal Families Magazine article, I allowed my twins to sign on to Facebook when they were 11 years old. My husband and I felt we could use it as an opportunity to regularly monitor what they were up to (11-year-olds are far more compliant than 13-year-olds, as a general rule), and it would open many possibilities for discussion and dialogue. Which it has. We’ve been very happy with this decision. But our 8-year-old is a different kid, requiring a different set of parenting strategies, and we aren’t so sure the same approach will work for her down the line.

You need to find your own comfort zone. You need to explain your rational to your child. And you need to maintain a careful eye on how they are handling this tremendous responsibility.

I’m really excited to be a featured speaker this Sunday at Montreal Families Magazine’s first ever Parenting Workshop, along with study skills and homework expert Carolyn Melmed. Space is filling up fast, so if you’ll be in Montreal this weekend, click on the link above and reserve your seat now.

I thought it might be useful to offer readers a quick overview of what I’ll be covering. Called “The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviours,” I’ll be talking about why it’s never too early to prepare your child to deal with the many confusing and conflicting messages they get concerning high-risk activities. What does smoking have to do with your preschooler? Why would you worry about Facebook or drinking alcohol if your kid is in grade 2? And if you already have a high schooler, I’ll talk about why it’s not too late to put prevention strategies into play.

To better understand the answers to these questions, I’ll be offering an overview of what high-risk activities are, and providing surprising information on when kids first start experimenting with them. I’ll be talking about the current research on children’s and adolescent’s brain development, and how understanding how their minds work can help us better tailor our prevention strategies. I’ll provide specific, concrete and practical age-based strategies for how to prepare your kids, so that they are better able to resist peer and media influence and develop important coping strategies. Worried your teen is already in trouble? I will tell you what your options are for seeking help. I will also point parents towards online resources for more specific information on different risk activities.

Please pass this on to anyone you know who might be interested in learning more about thinking ahead.

Can’t make it this Sunday? Not in Montreal? Interested in bringing me in to speak to parents or teachers at your child’s school or community centre? Email me at to discuss the range of workshops I can offer for parents, educators and students on high risk behaviours, Internet safety and more.

Creative Commons license CarbonNYCTwo nights ago my twin daughters, along with 46 classmates, graduated from their elementary school. The occasion involved a morning service, with breakfast for families, along with an evening program of graduate speeches (in which each kid had their own 45-second speech presented in three languages), handing out of diplomas, dinner and dancing.

A full day of celebration, an emotional, full-pack-of-Kleenex affair for a sentimental person like me. Our babies had  grown so much and so far, and damned if we weren’t going to mark it properly.

Now I’ve had six graduations of my own over the years, and I can tell you that none were as involved and exhaustively detailed as this ceremony sending 11 and 12-year-olds off to high school.

That being said, there is something particularly momentous about the move from primary to secondary school, especially here in Canada where we don’t have middle schools. In some ways, it is probably a bigger deal than going from high school to college. They are leaving the institution they entered as baby-faced four-year-olds, moving on in awkward new bodies to schools where they will now be the youngest. They may have 12-year-old minds and accumulated good judgment, but some will already look 16. Or even 18.

The range of issues they will contend with will be bigger, with more serious consequences for poor judgment. They will be expected to assume responsibility for their own actions, solve their own problems, make their own important decisions. They will be tempted by new influences, by cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and sexual activities. They will reach the age of medical consent (14 in most cases in Quebec, 16 in most other provinces), and the age of sexual consent (16 across Canada, between 16 and 18 across the U.S.). They will be allowed to drive cars, vote and join the military.

It’s one of the trite sayings of parenthood that little kids have little problems and big kids have big problems. When you have a six-year-old who isn’t yet reading, or a seven-year-old who has no friends, this seems to ignore the gut-wrenching worry parents may experience. But it makes sense, because it takes into account the consequences of these problems: the six-year-old (most of the time) will be seen to by parents, teachers and resource personnel who can make his problem go away, and the seven-year-old will most likely (sometimes with supervision) find her counterpart somewhere in the schoolyard. But the fifteen-year-old who decides to try ecstasy or heroin “just once” may end up in a downward spiral of legal, medical, social and academic problems that can haunt him for a lifetime.

The last unit my daughters’ amazing English teacher, Stacey, taught this group of grade 6’ers before the end of the year was on drug awareness. They read the controversial, classic novel Go Ask Alice, did multimedia presentations on common drugs, had powerful visits from some rehabilitated teenage drug addicts doing community service and, separately, from two wonderful police officers. In her graduation speech to the class and their families last night,  she reminded them, as they headed off on the next exciting chapter of their young lives, to ask with each new opportunity, each difficult decision, “Does this fit in with who I am?”

I thought this was brilliant. This simple sentence crystallizes exactly what we want our children to learn. It asks them to listen to that emerging inner voice, the collective wisdom of one’s experiences, advice from parents and teachers. The voice we all have, and sometimes — often to our own detriment — ignore (that second slice of pizza, that third martini, that guy at the party…). It encourages our kids to think about who they want to be, what core values they want to espouse. It evokes the family and communities that help flesh out our identities. It means respecting yourself.

I know plenty of adults who might want to keep this important question handy as they go about their daily lives.

So for all the graduates out there  (and parents of graduates), whether moving from  middle school to high school, university to grad school or even considering making a leap from an unsatisfying job, consider keeping that question filed away, but close enough at hand for quick reference:”Does this fit in with who I am?”

This past fall semester, I taught a course at  Concordia called Youth and Media. My students were mostly 2nd and 3rd year university students, roughly between the ages of 20 and 22. Although we had plenty of interesting discussions about music, copyright infringement, video games and mobile phones, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that for them, Youth and Media meant one thing: Facebook.

The stories they told to illustrate their points were not always upsetting, but those that were drew sympathetic gasps and nods from their classmates: house parties that had quickly gotten out of control, misunderstood postings that led to hurt feelings, cyber-bullying and romantic entanglements.

But what quickly emerged from this group of young adults was the fact that Facebook and other social media (MySpace, Friendster, etc.) had become both social conduits and social currency. That means that they used Facebook to communicate to each other, but also to establish their social positions in a group of friends.  Whereas a text message between friends can transmit information, it’s generally just between those people; when something gets posted on your Facebook wall, it’s also a kind of performance. This is what theorist Sherry Turkle calls The Second Self – creating the virtual person that is your reflection online. We’ll revisit this idea in future postings.

In other words, almost all of their social interactions, friendships, romantic relationships, important life events and communication tended to get filtered through these media. This can be true for adults as well as teens, but since establishing one’s identity is a big pre-occupation for adolescents, it happens more with those under 18. Meeting a friend for lunch? Post it on Facebook. Get a new haircut? Ditto. Parties and even informal get-togethers tend to be oriented around the cellphone cameras that will capture images and post them online. In fact, my students told me they had once tried an “unplugged party” – no camera phones, no posting of anything online — and it felt really strange. One young woman told me that life with Facebook  means “you feel you are always performing to the camera.”

What does this have to do with risk? Quite a bit, actually.

Facebook (and other social media) tend to be places where risky activities converge (to repurpose a tech term). That means that teens who are drunk, car surfing, smoking or passed out in a puddle of their own vomit tend to either post about it or capture each other on camera and post them online. Youtube in particular is full of videos of teens doing all sorts of high-risk activities and posting them for posterity. It’s gotten to the point where it’s hard to talk to teens about prevention without being aware that for adolescents, the performance of cool or daring is often more important than the thing itself. And that’s where technology can add to the risk.

Another way the Internet can add to the risk is by radically expanding the communities of influence teens to which teens are exposed, and by providing them with triggers to try high-risk activities. These include pro-anorexia and pro-cutting websites, videos and images of kids high on all sorts of substances. When one of my older daughters went online to look for information on hallucinogenic drugs for a school project, she found many more videos of kids getting high than those with any kind of educational or preventative angle.

So what does all this mean for our pre-teens and teens? Banning them from these sites would be pointless, but it would also miss the opportunity to teach them responsible use. My position is that with younger teens, tapering off as they demonstrate responsible behaviour, is the way to go. Of course, this all depends on each kid, since different levels of supervision may be necessary in different cases.

I’m putting together a posting on guidelines and best practices, but would welcome stories and suggestions from your own experience.

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.