Why I Make My Kids Take Risks

Why I Make My Kids Take Risks

As a scaredy cat who can’t even go down a slide without freaking out, it’s important to me that my kids learn to do things that scare them.
Jennifer Doverspike
By

No one would describe me as a risk taker. I don’t go on roller coasters, and I will never jump out of an airplane. I’m scared, in fact, of simple things, like getting on ice skates. However, a risk-taker is not necessarily someone who throws caution to the wind. What defines me as a risk taker is that I am able to regularly travel outside my comfort zone.

A recent article made its way to me on Facebook about encouraging our daughters to take risks. It said coddling them out of some desire to protect them is a disservice. It cited a study regarding a fire pole on a playground, how parents cautioned their daughters about the danger of the pole, but directed their sons to face their fear.

It spoke to me, because I had just experienced that fire pole scenario the day before. My daughter, who had encountered this fire pole many times in the past, out of the blue decided she was too scared to go down it and asked me to carry her down. I raised my eyebrows, and told her I knew she could do it. Not much sympathy on my end.

As a scaredy cat who can’t even go down a slide without freaking out, it’s important to me that both my kids learn to do things that scare them. We all have things that we feel we cannot do. But it’s my duty as a parent to have my children regularly encounter these scenarios. In fact, teaching your kids to leave their comfort zone has benefits that will extend far into adulthood and their careers.

They Learn to Embrace Fear

I see the ability to succeed out of your comfort zone as a muscle you have to exercise. You can be paralyzed by feeling you have no business doing what you’re doing, whatever that is: acting in a play, jumping off a diving board, entering graduate school. One of the benefits of exercising that muscle is knowing you can be nervous beforehand, but when push comes to shove, you don’t freeze up. You can actually do it.

I had the chance to exercise that muscle in my first career, when I encountered the best piece of briefing advice I’ve ever received: “You may think you know nothing about this topic. But remember. You know more about this than 99 percent of the people in that room.”

Donald Rumsfeld famously spoke about “Known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.” Knowing your unknowns helps you make informed decisions. In fact, the Dunning-Kruger effect demonstrates how people who don’t know their unknowns consistently self-assess themselves as more knowledgeable than they are, which means a little knowledge can make someone dangerous. The side-effect, however, for those who are aware of their limitations, is that they magnify those limitations and dwell on those known unknowns, as opposed to the body of knowledge they do possess.

It’s really easy to look at folks and think they have it all together and don’t have insecurities and doubts. But having insecurities and doubts does not preclude someone from being successful; it’s adhering to the insecurities that hampers success. A military leader may feel uncomfortable in his uniform when first promoted, but he knows what to do when it’s time to make a difficult call. A doctor may still feel like a kid when she gets her white coat, but one day later she can make that life-or-death decision because she’s practiced to earn her station.

You have to put yourself in stressful situations to practice this decision-making/performance muscle. I am teaching my kids to leap in even when there are butterflies in their stomachs and a vague tightness in their throats.

The first time I ever briefed a general, I was 19 years old. It was a very low-key, no-fail environment. I was to stand behind the general as he glanced at our slide. I had one line prepared explaining what he was looking at. Then I’d be available for questions, but he almost never had questions because he was smarter than all of us. But still. I was 19. I didn’t yet have mastery of my subject. It was 5:15 a.m., and there were 50 people behind me. I was terrified.

It was a necessary step toward becoming proficient at briefing. Five years later, I stood at 5:15 a.m. in the same room, the same type of briefing, in front of an admiral. He was known for making analysts cry. He liked to nitpick every detail, catch the briefer in a mistake. I handled all the volleys, parried them back with knowledge and confidence. If I can say so myself, I rocked that briefing.

Was I nervous beforehand? You bet your life I was. You wouldn’t have known it as I responded to every difficult question with a calm demeanor and a steady voice. And I never would have gotten there without that first, terrifying step.

They Learn to Embrace Failure

That very first briefing was a great environment for a novice. One of the things we talked about in my former career was “giving people the opportunity to excel.” We’re not going to throw them into a difficult environment with no safety net; we’re setting them up for a rousing success.

But you know what? Sometimes you can’t guarantee success, so the best we can do is cushion the fall and create an environment where it’s okay to try and fail. It’s a common conceit now to bemoan helicopter parents and organizations that give out participation trophies. I’m afraid all the horror stories of parenting gone wrong, however, detract from the central conceit: children need to fail. Then they need to dust themselves off and get up.

For example, I’m starting a business that might not make it. My expected return for all the work I’m putting into it is likely pretty small. But sometimes, a risk of this magnitude is worth it. For me, it’s the true belief that what I’m building is something that is good and necessary for the growth of my city and state.

A first business often loses money. The first novel is always shoved away in a drawer (I have one of those). We perfectionists want to avoid at all costs that sinking feeling of losing. But as Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

I always encourage my kids by saying, “It’s okay! I know you can do it!” But that statement implies failure isn’t an option. If you have imposter syndrome, like all of us do, then we believe failure is proof that we are, indeed, imposters.

I often saw inexperienced briefers make the mistake of making something up off the top of their heads when an audience member asked a difficult question. They felt not having an answer meant they didn’t belong up there at the podium. So I taught them this phrase: “Sir, I don’t know. After this briefing, I’ll find out and get back to you.” Likewise, I want to make sure my kids know it’s okay to say, “I don’t know” or “I need help.”

As I learned when attempting that first novel, a story without some hardship for the protagonist is a really boring tale. The beauty and art in the story is in overcoming adversity and failure.

They Learn to Embrace Grace

Look, I’m still not a risk-taker in the traditional sense. The fears that hold me back the most are physical. Embracing fear does not mean I’m going to go skydiving, skiing, or riding in a roller coaster. We all have those things that just aren’t worth it.

We can beat ourselves up, or we can keep working on it.

We also have those fears that are worth overcoming, but that we will struggle with for the rest of our lives. To this day, I’m terrified of cocktail parties. Walking up to a group of people and initiating small talk is akin to skydiving for me. If you want to see me travel back in time to being a socially awkward preteen, this is it.

We can beat ourselves up, or we can keep working on it. We also must act with a full understanding of who we are. At this point in my life I’ve made quite a few speeches, presented quite a few briefings, and appeared on TV and radio. But the way I prepare for those experiences is tailored to my personality.

Unlike my extroverted debate-nerd husband, who can jump up and speak in front of a hundred people with no more than an outline on a notecard, I pre-write every word. Then I say it out loud, and modify it to sound more natural. Then I memorize it. Every word. That’s how it works best for me, and to try to mold me into a skilled extemporaneous speaker is to exacerbate my weaknesses and ignore my strengths.

We have to give ourselves some grace, and it behooves us to extend the same grace to our children. Nothing fills me more with pride than watching my kids go up to strangers and ask to play, or face a large slide, or go up on stage at church and sing loud, or walk into an unfamiliar classroom with just a brief look over their shoulders. But should they falter at the breach, I will be waiting with open arms.

Jennifer Doverspike is a former counterterrorism intelligence analyst at the Department of Defense. Jennifer received a joint bachelors and masters degree in foreign service from Georgetown University. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma with her husband and their three young children. Follow her on Twitter, @SixFortyNine1.

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