The Joy of Playing It Un-Safe: Letting the Kids Fail

One brave woman on the rewards of breaking out of your comfort zone

By Judith Newman
Photograph: Phil Toledano

THE NEIGHBORHOOD KIDS ask my boys if they want to play “King.” This game consists of climbing up on a narrow ledge five feet off the ground and trying to knock others off into a patch of thorny bushes and concrete; the last one standing is King. This is not exactly the safest game in the world. But I want my boys to play, scrapes and bruises (and maybe worse) be damned. Like the guy who never graduated from high school who dreams of his kid going to Harvard, I have a dream, too: that I, a person with a hundred trivial fears, will have children who live large. I want them to take risks. I crave it.

And needless to say, they don’t. My sons are weenies. Here is a partial list
of the things Gus is scared of: planes, thunder, lightning, dogs that want to lick him, any new food, any new place, the pssht sound a train makes when it stops. Gus has Asperger’s and is extremely sensitive to certain noises. He is also tiny and kind of a spaz. But that’s why it’s even more important to me that he make like the Cowardly Lion in his favorite movie musical, The Wizard of Oz, and get some nerve. Because right now Gus uses these two words interchangeably: scary and new.

Henry has no such excuse. He is big and burly and full of bluster. Right now his career plan is to become a professional wrestler and then the governor of a Midwestern state; he has spent way too much time watching Jesse Ventura on YouTube. Yet in real life, his first question in virtually any situation is, “Will it hurt?” His second is, “Is that legal?” In a car he is the human speedometer, monitoring me from the backseat: “Mom, the speed limit is 55; you’re doing 60. SLOW DOWN.” He gets the horrors at the thought of any sort of discomfort (he won’t go to the beach—sand!—and picked summer camp
this year based on the availability of air-conditioning) and passes out at the sight of needles. When a (much smaller) kid at school was giving him grief and took his lunch box, he wrote an essay about bullying and asked me if we could sue the kid’s parents.

My husband and I approach our sons’ risk aversion somewhat differently. Basically, if John could send them off to school in hazmat suits, he would. My wish, obviously, is not to see my children in traction. But I do get the connection between taking small physical risks now and taking larger, broader ones later. And I’m not the only one.

Scientists have studied this subject for years. Aside from knowing that higher levels of risk taking generally go with higher levels of testosterone—in men and women—it’s not entirely clear what percentage of this personality trait is nature and what is nurture (though there are some studies that happily demonstrate the obvious. If you’re, say, a fiddler crab and you’re shy, you will not mate as often and as successfully as your bold counterpart. Which is not exactly surprising to anyone who’s done time at a bar on a Saturday night).

What does seem clear, however, is that if you look at the aggregate research, risk takers are not static. They are learners. What they may actually learn along the way is failure, but study after study shows that finding out how to fail, then bounce back, is an integral part of success. Not just in work but in relationships, too. That guy Al Tennyson had a point: It really is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. (After all, the majority of divorced women are remarried after 10 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.)

First Published September 14, 2011

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