The Science of Risk


By Rebecca Lemar

I grew up alongside a valiant older brother that lived his youth seeking thrills: Black diamond ski runs, skateboard-without-fear, climb-mountains-without-gear kind of guy. He’s had amnesia, broken teeth, and concussions, while I, the more cautious one, did not.

Recently I browsed a book by Jack Challoner on the brain . He mentioned the science of risk and how people, quite unconsciously, maintain a certain balance of risk in their lives scaling up or down according to their innate desire for thrill. An expert on risk, Professor Gerald Wilde, coined this effect risk homeostasis theory and there have been many studies to examine and understand thrill seeking human behaviors. Various types of personality testing as well as a look into neuro-chemistry and biochemistry have identified certain “types” of people genetically high or averse risk takers.

Interestingly enough, by nature, I seek high stimulation and novelty, which are hallmarks of thrill-seeking behaviors. As a parent and teacher I seek creativity, movement, exploration, manipulation, and communication like they are commandments, but nothing that would risk bodily injury or public humiliation. And every once in a while I put myself under review: am I allowing my own children to take risks? I taught my son to ride a bike. I let my daughter use the wood fence as a balance beam. I let my son play with fire (in the snow!) and cut fruit with a sharp knife.   I let my daughter swim in shallow water without a floaty (up to her waist). These are small things and yet they caused me great stress. I constantly considered the “WHAT IF” factor.img_1404

Recently I put myself in check. I took my son for a bike ride, just the two of us, and we stopped at an empty, wooded park to play. I was watchful of my boy and got involved in his decisions to use the monkey bars by moving close to him (a silent message that this was a risk). The bars were high above my own head and normally I will not help my children–if they are old enough and strong enough to do it themselves then they are ready. He wanted badly to reach them and I stood near and watched.   The first time he got to the first bar and jumped down, the second time he got to the second bar and jumped to the ground, the third time he got to the third bar.   We were both excited about his quick progress and advancing skill.   The fourth time he got to the second bar, he slipped, tried to reach back toward the metal platform but hit his chin on the way down instead.

He was injured. Every second of the next few days I thought about all the moments that lead up to this event and how I could have avoided it. I was angry I allowed him the risk and it ended this way. The swelling on his chin was terrible. He made signs he taped on the doors and windows of our house that said, “don’t come in,” for fear of anyone seeing him. He is fine though. Jawbone unbroken, severe bruising and great swelling, but no infections, no damage to his larynx, no breathing problems. Just making memories with mom.

This has been a great lesson for me. Our lives need risk. We are constantly bombarded with risky choices with no clue of what could happen. Apparently, 450 people die a year falling out of bed in the US, and ants, coconuts, vending machines and icicles kill people all the time! My son swinging from the monkey bars was a lesson on recognizing risk and appreciating risk. I told my mother this img_1257and she said, “Well, you’re toughening up,” and yes, that’s a sure thing. And sometimes toughening up means risk is its own reward, even when the outcome is not what we had planned.

What kind of parent are you? Do you let your children take risks? Let’s start a dialogue.



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