Positive Risk Taking?

It is amazing to learn what people carry with them  every day, hidden from view.  In fact, you might never really know until you ask them.  Generally speaking, when the topic of teenagers and risk is raised, it has a negative connotation; risk-taking by teens is usually regarded as something to be avoided.  Recently, we polled the Upper School students and asked their views on a different kind of risk taking.  In a survey, we asked them to:
“Describe a recent time when you faced a fear and took a positive risk.”

The students responded with a broad array of stories about times they had finally faced a fear that had been holding them back, a fear that in most cases they had held to themselves.  Their stories included times that they had chosen to risk failure by electing a more challenging course load, trying out a new sport or activity, or choosing the most rigorous Outdoor Experience option; to risk feeling exposed by speaking out on a controversial topic in history class or at church; to risk social rejection by standing up for a friend who was being treated poorly or asking to sit with a new group at lunch; to risk being alone by choosing to attend Waynflete and leaving old friends behind; and to risk emotional pain by learning to accept one’s own feelings or by confiding those feelings to another.

We also asked the students to explain what gave them the courage to take those risks.  In each of the instances listed above and in the many more that students related, they cited the importance of their parents, their friends, and trusted adults in helping them to choose to do the right thing.  They also noted the importance of their own internal capacity to push through fear of any kind.

The survey was the latest part of an extended conversation that we have been having with students this fall about the importance of taking positive risks in life in order to grow.  The conversation began at the opening Outdoor Experience meeting this fall when program coordinator Emily Graham asked the students to see their trips as an opportunity to “step outside of your comfort zones” whether by simply going on the trip, which is a big challenge for some, or, if being in the outdoors is not a challenge, by assuming a leadership role on the trip.  In my opening talk to students this fall, I recounted a time in my own high school career when I had let fear of failure hold me back academically, and I showed a video of a Hamilton College graduate delivering a speech on the importance of doing things not only “in spite of our fear” but also “because we are afraid.”  (Click here to read the text of my talk and to view the video of the Hamilton College speech).  Her delivery proved a powerful illustration of her message as she spoke forcefully despite having a profound stutter.  A couple of weeks ago, at the invitation of the Upper School advising team, Geoff Wagg spoke to the student body about a time when he took a positive risk.

After Geoff’s talk, we conducted the survey of US students cited above to find out what holds them back from taking positive risks and what helps them to push through.  (Click here to view a copy of the survey questions). Following are some of the results:

  • Seventy-seven percent of the students reported being held back in a significant way by some form of fear sometimes(60%), frequently (15%), or everyday (2%).
  • Of the fears listed that hold students back in a significant way, failure (64%) and social embarrassment (63%) topped the list followed by criticism (48%) and rejection (35%).  The other fears were indicated by 26% of the students or fewer.
  • Of the sources of support that help students overcome their fears and to take positive risks, family was ranked the highest, followed by the students themselves,  their friends, trusted adults, and inspiring examples of people that they don’t know.
  • Eighty-nine percent of the students reported being interested in building their capacities to take positive risks, with the bulk of them (47% of all students) reporting that they have already started pushing themselves to do so.  About a quarter of the student body reported that they are interested in building their capacity to take positive risks but have no idea how to do so.

The survey is probably not sophisticated enough to yield many scientifically valid conclusions.  Its data does, however, seem to indicate that various forms of fear do hold our students back from making some choices that would help them to grow.  In fact, the students even added to the list of things that hold them back, including a generalized feeling of anxiety.  The student response to the survey may even support the notion held by many that ours in an age in which a pervasive sense of uncertainty about the future has caused a heightened anxiety that is inhibiting the ability of young people to thrive.  While there may not be much that we as the significant adults in the lives of our youth can do now to make the future more certain, we can certainly strive to empower them to take charge of their lives.  One way to do so is to help them to build their capacities to take the risks that will help them grow.

The survey data also shows clearly that parents are the most important force in the lives of young people.  While that fact does not surprise me, a reminder to you parents is probably refreshing, given that your children are of an age when they might not communicate that point on a regular basis.  The data also reveals the importance of supportive friends, which validates the work we do to cultivate a healthy social climate and respectful peer relations at school.  And the data shows the importance of trusted adults in the lives of our students, which certainly validates the work we do as a faculty to build relationships with our students.  In addition, the data also indicates an overwhelming interest among students in building their capacities to face up to fears and take positive risks, and many report that they are already trying hard to do so.  That is great news.

Risk-taking is a tricky subject with which to engage our students.  On one hand, there are many risk-taking behaviors that we actively discourage because they are unhealthy, self-destructive, or dangerous.  On the other hand, we don’t want our young people to be fearful of the world and become risk averse, because that would surely thwart their growth.  The survey data will be the focus of discussions by the Upper School team as we consider ways to continue to help our students to build their capacities to take positive risks.  We hope you as parents will help as well by continuing to point your children towards the opportunities that they have to grow and bolstering them in the myriad ways you do to seize the day.

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