PEI·Opinion

The agony of letting our kids take risks: Opinion

I am a first-time mother of a one-year-old, and over the past year I've had to temper my fears a million times. From the first night home from the hospital when I held my breath as she slept, to letting her eat grapes, to watching her climb precariously on every piece of furniture we own — it's been a daily practice of managing my own discomfort so that she can live her own risk-filled life.

Parenting is 'a daily practice of managing my own discomfort so that she can live her own risk-filled life'

'I have been reflecting on how I came to appreciate taking meaningful risks,' says CBC columnist Kailea Switzer, with her daughter. (Kailea Switzer)

I am a first-time mother of a one-year-old, and over the past year I've had to temper my fears a million times. From the first night home from the hospital when I held my breath as she slept, to letting her eat grapes, to watching her climb precariously on every piece of furniture we own — it's been a daily practice of managing my own discomfort so that she can live her own risk-filled life. 

It can be hard to remember in these moments, but I do truly value risk-taking. As a counsellor and coach, my career is built around helping others take meaningful risks, and in my own life I can easily connect the dots from "risks I took" to "most meaningful experiences I've had." 

Now, as a new parent, I have been reflecting on how I came to appreciate taking meaningful risks.

I grew up in Charlottetown, and in this small town where everyone knows what everyone else is up to, my parents weren't afraid to be different. I watched them start new businesses and figure out the challenges as they went. They took on new hobbies and set personal goals. They experimented with recipes, planned unusual vacations, and encouraged us to make our ideas real. Even when my brother wanted to start a wrestling federation in our basement, my dad got out the ropes and mats and helped him build a ring.

Their mottos were "What's the worst that could happen?" and "If it were easy, everybody would be doing it." In that, they modelled meaningful risk-taking and normalized it.

Stretching Begets More Stretching

When I graduated high school I received a Loran Award, a scholarship and leadership program valued up to $100,000 over four years of undergraduate study in Canada, awarded to only three dozen Canadian graduating students annually. This award has been one of the most enormous privileges of my life. It allowed me to move off-Island to complete my undergraduate degree; without the support of Loran, I never would have moved away. Loran took a risk on me and their choice to do so completely changed the course of my life.

There's an ocean of possibilities out there, says Switzer — you just have to train yourself to be open to them. (Greg Alsop)

That initial move for university was such a stretch for me that I've compared all subsequent risks to it, and something inside me always says, "Well if you could do that, you can do this." The more of these stretching experiences I've accumulated, the more enticing new growth opportunities have felt and the more open I've become to seek them out. I believe there is a strong link between taking meaningful risks and how much we trust ourselves. In other words, we take risks if we believe we can handle the outcomes, regardless of what they may be. The Loran foundation trusted me — they believed in my leadership potential and ability to effect positive change in my community, and that helped me trust myself. 

This was also the way my parents parented — they always led me to believe that I could handle hard things. Growing up there was no asking if I did my homework, or whether I practiced the piano. My dad is a professional musician and when I wanted to take piano lessons he said, "OK, but I won't ever push you — it has to be your own choice." 

Does growth mean you let your child intentionally struggle, and if so, how much? (Greg Alsop/Kailea Switzer)

When I left for university, my parents did not pack up my belongings or shop for my dorm room, they did not oversee my course selection, edit my assignments, or monitor my grades. When I moved to the U.S., there were no questions about my visa, health insurance, or taxes — it was simply assumed that I could and would figure it out. This may seem radical: some might say, "Well, you were a conscientious kid so your parents could get away with that, but if I didn't remind my kid to do those things, they would just never get done!" Possibly. But it's also possible that intrinsic motivation and self-accountability can't bloom without space. They trusted me so much that I intuited I was someone to be trusted.

That said, I also always felt safe to ask my parents for help. I think their approach made me more transparent with my struggles because I knew they would listen and encourage me, but also that they wouldn't jump in unless I asked them to. Had they tried to solve my problems for me it would have undermined my confidence; it would have implicitly said "You do not have this." In learning to trust myself, I felt empowered to gradually stretch my self-imposed limits. 

Get comfortable with the discomfort of growth

Even though growth can be painful, the feeling of expansion has always made me hungry for more. 

'My baby is only one-year-old, and seeing her struggling is the absolute worst,' says Switzer. (Kailea Switzer)

As an adult, I intentionally seek out meaningful risks, whether it's sharing something I've created, taking an improv class, asking someone I've just met on a "friend date," or simply trying a new recipe for a dinner party — the discomfort has proven worth it. 

But as a child, growth meant my parents had to intentionally let me hurt and struggle. As a new mom, I've never appreciated more what that must have involved. To develop a practice of taking meaningful risks, you also have to be willing to regularly experience vulnerability, discomfort and pain. My baby is only one-year-old, and seeing her struggling is the absolute worst; nonetheless, how am I helping her if she doesn't learn it is safe to do so? I know the qualities I value most in people — empathy, compassion, depth, insight and the ability to see things from a nuanced perspective — are born from painful experiences.

Reframing my daughter's pain as "stretching for her emotional expansion" and her struggles as "grit-building opportunities" won't help very much when those moments come up, but perhaps it will help me see where her struggle ends and my tolerance of her discomfort begins.

I work with many university students. I love this age group because their experience with taking meaningful risks has often been limited, and watching them take the reigns of their own lives is exciting. We examine their relationship with trying and their willingness to allow others to see them in the process of learning. For those who were high achievers in high school, this can be especially challenging. Asking questions in class, going to office hours, getting help from the writing resource centre, hiring a tutor or simply getting feedback on an assignment can be extremely difficult for students as they feel they "aren't the kind of student who does those things." 

I try to increase their comfort with not knowing, gradually help them equate the feeling of struggle with growth, and ideally stretch their capacity for meaningful risk-taking in ways that will continue throughout their lives. 

Freedom to change what we believe about ourselves

When I work with adults, often the barriers to meaningful risk-taking are increasingly dense.

'I have grown to love and appreciate that feeling of unknown possibility,' says Switzer. (Bria Fallen)

People will tell me they are struggling to find meaning in their life, or say that they feel stuck or bored. I'll respond by asking, "How often do you really put yourself out there?" and "When was the last time you genuinely acted vulnerably?"

All meaningful risks require us to be vulnerable with ourselves and others, and most significantly they require us to be willing to change what we believe about ourselves. 

If you had told me when I graduated high school what my next 10 years would look like — that I would attend Harvard University, move to Los Angeles, and leave my stable and rewarding career to start a business — I would never have believed you. 

So when people ask "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" I say "I can't wait to find out!" because I have grown to love and appreciate that feeling of unknown possibility. The emotional exposure I feel when taking a meaningful risk is also what makes me feel alive and most "in" my own life. The practice of meaningful risk-taking has taught me that I'm always only one experience away from a new understanding of myself and the world. It has allowed me to expand and broaden my self-definition.

What do I wish for my daughter?

So how can I use my experiences and the lessons I've learned to now help my daughter pursue meaningful risks? 

I need to model risk-taking and show that while no true risk lacks vulnerability, the emotional exposure is worth it. I also need to show her that asking for help requires strength, so she will know it is safe to do so. 

I need to get out of her way and give her space to struggle. My hope is that in doing so, she will prove to herself that she can handle hard things and she will come to deeply trust herself. 

Lastly, through her own ongoing practice of meaningful risk-taking, I hope she will delight in the fact that the story of who she will become is always being written. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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About the Author

Kailea has a B.A. in Psychology from Mount Allison University, a B.Ed. from St. Thomas University, and a M.Ed. from Harvard University. After living in Toronto, Boston and Los Angeles for several years, she moved back to Charlottetown with her husband and daughter in 2018. She offers private counselling services as well as organization coaching and time management consulting.

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