I'm more than a little afraid of heights. But last
year, I found out that my local Y was offering a parent/child
climbing class-and my son, then 4, had been wanting to try the
climbing wall. After watching Ryan effortlessly scramble up, I
triple-checked my safety harness, wiped my sweaty hands on my
shorts and started my first climb.
I could feel my heart pounding in my ears and forced
myself not to look down as I climbed higher, slowly searching for
my next handhold. I was shocked-and exhilarated-to discover that
I'd made it to the top of the 25-foot wall on my first
I decided then to stretch myself more-in short, to take
more risks (though I have no intention of going skydiving any time
soon). Since then, I've started taking spinning and yoga classes,
two activities I'd always been nervous about trying.
When psychologists study risk-taking behavior, it's often
in the context of things like taking drugs, engaging in unprotected
sex, driving too fast and other activities that can have fatal
consequences. So it's not surprising that we tend to think of
risk-taking as overly dangerous.
However, reasonable risk-taking can help you break out of
a rut and lead to greater confidence as a woman-and help you be an
excellent role model for your children.
You don't have to scale a wall or speak in front of 300
people to feel like you're taking a risk.
"Risk-taking is a way of going out of your comfort zone,"
says clinical psychologist Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D., author of
The Procrastinator's Guide to Getting Things Done (2010, Gilford).
"We limit ourselves by our perceptions of ourselves. If we perceive
ourselves as being good at certain things, we want to do them-and
if we perceive that we're not as good at other things, we tend to
shy away from them."
It makes sense, right?
No one likes to look stupid, and the bigger the risk, the
scarier it can seem. Your personal risk-taking quotient depends on
your personality, the size and type of risk, and how you grew
"If you're in a home environment where people are
encouraged to try new things … in that kind of arena, more
risk-taking is possible," says Basco. "But if the risk is too great
or the risk of criticism is too high, you may not be willing to do
The potential rewards of a risk will also determine
whether you're willing to take it.
When Julie Devine moved to Downers Grove, she didn't know
anyone in the area. She'd been a working mom until her second
daughter was born and she decided to stay home with her
"We had moved here when I was pregnant with Jillian, and I
just never met anyone because I worked," says Devine, 36. "So after
Lainey was born, and I was home with two, and suddenly feeling more
and more isolated, I started stalking the neighborhood on daily
walks, trying to spy who had similar toddler toys in their yards.
After a few weeks of daily walks, I made up fliers and put them in
the mailboxes of the homes I'd identified-total strangers to
me-inviting them to my house for a playgroup."
Devine says it felt like a risk to reach out to people she
didn't know, but her effort was rewarded. "All six moms showed up,
and four of them ended up being some of my best friends," she says.
"We're still friends five-and-a-half years later, and so are all
You may not think of yourself as a risk-taker, like the
firefighters, police officers, pilots and soldiers who encounter
danger almost every day. Yet, "risk-taking behavior is what moves
the world forward. No change happens if someone doesn't take a
risk," says psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., (aka "Dr.
Romance"), author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the
Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage (Adams Media, 2008). In
fact, even loving someone is a risk, because you might get hurt,
she points out.
And is there any bigger emotional risk than becoming a
"Any time we learn something new, we are taking a
risk-moving outside the comfort zone," says Tessina. "Learning new
things keeps us motivated, alive, energized. We need a certain
(perhaps small) amount of risk to be happy."
As a parent, there's another issue as well-you want your
children to understand how to evaluate risks so they know the
difference between healthy and unhealthy risk-taking. It starts
with teaching your children not to touch a stove, or to look both
ways and hold a grownup's hand before crossing the street. But as
your children get older, they need to be able to make decisions
(like wearing their seat belts, saying "no" to drugs and alcohol
and staying safe online) to stay safe and healthy.
Even if you hate taking risks, you must expect your
children to want to experiment with "scary" behaviors-that's a
normal part of adolescence.
If taking risks scares you, start off
"In fact, it's better to take risks in increments," says
Basco. "If you're worried about failure don't take a giant
leap-just take a small step. Sometimes it's just gathering
That information helps you determine the risk/benefit
ratio. What are the potential benefits of taking the risk? Could
the experience be fun, help you grow or make your life more
interesting? And consider the potential risks. Could you lose
money, invest your time in something that turns out to be
worthwhile, or look foolish (at least in your own eyes)?
Consider Julie Devine-she could have worried about looking
needy or lonely to her neighbors. Instead, she wound up with
Show your kids how you evaluate risks. For example, if
you're training for a 5K race for the first time, you might say
that you're nervous about not being able to finish, but that you're
excited about challenging yourself in a new way.
"Learn to take calculated risks yourself, so you can teach
your kids from what you know from your own experience," says
Tessina. "Talk to your kids about the benefits and problems
associated with risk. Compare the reckless risks of drugs and
extreme behavior with the risks that bring rewards, like trying
something new, loving someone or being emotionally
And if you're not a risk-taker by nature, don't worry-you
don't have to suddenly ditch your usual routine in favor of a new
job, a new home and a new hairstyle all at once.
"Make it a calculated risk-figure out in advance what you
might lose or gain," says Tessina. "Take small risks at first, if
you're not used to it, and grow into the bigger risks."
Those bigger risks-the ones that take you outside of your
comfort zone-can feel scary as first. But they'll also help you
grow as a person, and help teach your kids to embrace appropriate
risks-while hopefully avoiding the ones that can be truly
Since becoming a parent almost six years ago, Downers Grove resident Kelly James-Enger has become more of a risk-taker. She even let her kindergartner go on his first sleepover recently!
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