Parenting Mantras

Taking Risks for Our Children

mountainphotoA creative mind requires a wide array of experiences. Each experience opportunity comes with risk.

Ahhh risk.

In the short 5 months that I have been a mother, I feel that this is one of the big daily conundrums that every parent faces. My husband and I want to raise a child that can think and do things for herself. A person who has a healthy amount of fear, but also has tools to overcome fear. All of the books and experiences I have to date regarding breeding self-reliance boils down to the amount of risk that a parent is willing to take to allow the child to have her own experiences – both good and bad.

Safety related experiences aside, I want her to experience as much as her brain can take. I try to pay attention to her signals that she has “had enough” for any given day so we don’t overwhelm her, but all of the other time is fair game for different things: walks, touching different things in the forest, swimming, talking to all kinds of different people in all kinds of languages, practicing new physical motions and tactile activities based on her current phase of brain development. A lot of these activities are no-brainers for me – the reward far exceeds the risk of the situation. However, there are some things that aren’t so easy.

For example, how do I determine if an activity is too risky for my daughter at her current age? Taking her swimming at 4 months was an interesting decision for me. I swam all throughout pregnancy. It is something that my mom taught me early on and I wanted to share that experience with my daughter. But 4 months? Too early? Too late?

Of course, my geek brain returned to what I know: business and functional risk and failure assessment.  For any given situation, there are lots ways that something can fail and return a result that is less than satisfactory. In the event that you are trying to determine whether to move forward with a situation or trying to determine where to invest funds to reduce risk for the situation, there’s a tool called the “Failure Modes and Effects Analysis” or FMEA for short. In the simplest terms, FMEA is an evaluation of how things can break and a prioritization for action to reduce the risk.

Let’s take learning to ride a bike for example. FMEA suggests that you should evaluate the ways that riding a bike can go wrong, then evaluate each way it can fail in terms of how often it can occur, how detectable it is if it is going to occur and how severe the failure is if it does occur. You can assign numbers or a low-med-high ranking to each of these areas to come up with a prioritized list of your riskiest areas that you can use to reduce the overall risk of the activity.

Two young children ride bicycles in parkThis is overkill for most situations – but just for kicks, lets look at how learning to ride a bike could fail. There are lots of ways that learning to ride a bike could produce a less-than-positive experience. From cuts and bruises to brain damage and death, there is a range of experiences that, I am sure run through every parent’s mind. One way riding a bike can fail is that the rider falls and hits his head on the pavement. Using FMEA, we can conclude that it is only slightly detectable, i.e. we rarely have warning that it is going to happen, it has a high likelihood of occurring during the first ride since it’s a new skill for the rider and finally, the severity of such an injury can be fairly high. This results in a med-high risk rating. Most parents I know employ the risk-reducing activities of wearing a helmet, learning on a flat surface and using training wheels to reduce the risk of this activity.

So back to something that, for me, was a little more risky: swimming. The pediatrician gave us the green light, so there wasn’t anything medically holding us back. I evaluated every outcome mentally from swallowing water and getting water in her ears to drowning and using this methodology, came up with no reason to avoid this activity as long as 1) I don’t let go of her for any reason (that comes later), 2) I respect her response to the situation (i.e. – if she is screaming in the pool, I won’t force it) and 3) we aren’t alone in the pool. Thinking through the real risks of a situation and determining what I need to remove the risk of serious failure has helped me tremendously in my life and has allowed me to experience some really great things even though my first response to the activity was of great fear.

This prioritization activity has helped me come up with a list of guiding principles that help me to determine whether or not to move forward with an activity for my daughter. It is sort-of a list of commandments that I have selected as my boundaries to guide my thought process as I move forward with decisions for her until she can make decisions herself. I see this list as something that is very much alive and will be expanded often. While each list will be tailored to an individuals parenting mantras, mine includes things like: Do something new each day, No body-modifying decisions until she is old enough to decide for herself, No assuming that she can’t do something just because it scares me – I really need to evaluate it for its actual risk / reward.

Of the books I have read so far, here are the ones that have helped me understand risk and how to really think about the benefits of letting my kiddo experience risky situations for herself:

Brain Rules for Baby: This book by John Medina features tons of facts about what to do for a kiddo to help them develop into a happy human. As it relates to risk, this book helped to shed light on how to pay attention to baby’s changing moods in given situations.

How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk: This book is amazing at examining how what you say impacts how a kiddo will feel about what he or she is doing. It helped me understand the impact of my words and actions as it relates to encouraging my child to experience something on her own.

Failure Mode and Effects Analysis: For those of you who are curious about the FMEA side of risk assessment, this link to the American Society of Quality page is everything you need to know about what it is and how to use it.

I am sure things get a whole lot more complicated once they can talk back – right? I hope this will help me then as well. Please share your tips for how you determine if something is ok or not ok for your kids to experience and any specific experiences that you feel help inspire creativity.

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