There’s no shortage of news stories and studies telling us that this generation of children is the most parented and protected in America’s history.
When it comes to childhood, experts believe we have “a cultural emphasis on eliminating or minimizing physical risk.”
Children of the 1970s and 1980s recount stories of the joys of laissez-fare parenting. They rode their bikes all over town until dinner time and knocked on friends’ doors instead of having their parents plan playdates.
Not to sound like the curmudgeon who walked to school uphill both ways in the snow, but I remember making the half-a-mile walk to elementary school by myself each day. Today parents feel obligated to walk their second graders the quarter mile to school. I know, because I did the same.
As children grow older, parents can track their whereabouts and screen time, creating a dynamic with more oversight and less freedom. There’s also less opportunity to engage in risk judgement and decision-making. It’s a problem.
As Jess Row described it in The New Yorker, “This concern for children’s whereabouts—physical and psychological—isn’t just warding off some kind of catastrophic danger; it’s about an aversion to any kind of risk, to even the smallest mistake or setback.”
The Problem of Risk-Free Life
The problem with living a risk-free life is that it doesn’t last forever. Eventually, children become adults and enter the workforce. There, they’ll have to navigate the perils of the business world (not to mention the personal challenges of adulthood).
If we don’t give children the opportunity to encounter reasonable, relatively low-stakes risk, how will they be prepared to identify, understand, and deal with risk at the enterprise level?
Experience with risk:
1. Makes us better decision makers.
When a child is faced with a reasonable risk, he has to make a decision and then review the outcome. For instance, a child might have to decide whether or not to try and jump over a stream when walking on a trail. The child may clear the stream or he may end up soaked with muddy water. Either way, he learns a valuable lesson. He absorbs information about why his decision worked or failed and what could have been done differently. He’ll be more informed the next time he faces a decision.
2. Gives us confidence that we can overcome obstacles.
Every time a child makes a decision for herself, she becomes more comfortable with decision making and consequences. She’ll learn how to cope when something goes wrong and that it’s possible to take corrective action and/or try again. It develops persistence and grit. It will also make her more likely to anticipate potential complications and have a plan to mitigate them.
3. Helps us assess risk as a group.
Decisions aren’t always made at the individual level. Sometimes children will have to decide what to do as a group. These situations help kids learn to speak up when they perceive risk and offer solutions. They also learn to listen to input from others.
4. Teaches us to work independently.
Dealing with risk requires a degree of cerebral effort. Those left to face a risk on their own learn how to work out problems without immediately running to others for help. They grow up to make much better employees.
Banking inherently involves risk. There’s the basic risk that customers will default on loans or that a poor economy will reduce loan growth. There are runs on the bank and robberies. From a more strategic standpoint, there’s the risk that new competitors will have an advantage that could take away market share. And those are just a few. The list goes on and on and on.
As new risks continue to emerge—everything from cyber risk to compliance burden—our industry will continue to need board members, executives, and risk managers who are comfortable evaluating, measuring, and mitigating risk.
While reducing the risk our children face may seem like a gift, exposing them to reasonable risks is just as valuable. As more organizations discover this, the pendulum for childhood risk may be shifting.
For example, last year The New York Times reported on a school in England that swapped out plastic play equipment for piles of wood, crates, loose bricks, log stumps, hammers, saws, and a mud pit to “bring in risk” and build resilience.
I admit I have some serious reservations about giving kids saws to play with, but perhaps I’m being overly cautious. If we never let our children use sharp objects, they’ll never get a feel for how they work. Instead we’ll develop kids who are afraid of them or kids who don’t respect them.
I’d know which person I’d prefer to hire.