It seems that today’s parents are more risk-averse than ever when it comes to their children’s play. We go to great lengths to guarantee our children will not so much as scrape a knee. We’re catechized in the religion of risk aversion, in which hesitancy is prudence and inaction is noble. No one teaches us to manage risk; rather, we’re culturally primed to eradicate it. Never mind that what we’ve deemed risky may not be so: we’ve exaggerated what statistics show are minimal risks (child abduction, for instance), yet we structure much of our lives around avoiding them. 

Helicopter parenting is just one example of our cultural bent toward risk aversion, a disposition that extends far beyond the context of child’s play. In her book iGen, Dr. Jean Twenge discusses how risk aversion has exacerbated the mental health crisis among the young. Today’s adolescents seemingly do everything in their power to avoid risk and danger, seeking not merely to avoid physical harm but to pursue what Twenge calls “emotional safety.” Naturally, a desire to avoid emotional wounds leads one to self-protect and isolate, which exacerbates the loneliness that already plagues this new generation. This, in turn, leads to greater isolation and loneliness, a posture that does very little to increase the capacity to take on healthy risks. Twenge questions:

[W]hy hasn’t this increase in safety led to a generation of risk takerskids who feel safe and thus can take risks? In short, that’s not how the human mind works. Generally, people overcome fears by confronting them, not by hiding from them.

Twenge goes on to explain that the most effective treatment for phobias is to have the person expose herself gradually and repeatedly to the thing that is causing her distress. She says, “Without such experiences, the fear remains.” This, she says, is among the newest generation’s defining features: there is no exposure. There is only avoidance.

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Parents’ role in perpetuating this pathology is undeniable. We are obsessed with crafting childhoods for our kids that are free from any discomfort, pain, and sadness. And as Twenge and others aptly point out, this has not produced happier kids. Riskof heartbreak, injury, illness, disappointment, and failureis essential to forming our children into emotionally strong, resilient people. We’re depriving our children of that necessary, albeit painful, refinement process.

Risk Aversion and False Prudence

One of the problems Twenge and others point out so clearly in their research is that our culture fails to offer models of healthy risk-taking. If anything, middle-class America valorizes the risk-averse individual. We’ve come to see risk avoidance as a form of prudence. Not doing something has become the new heroism. Examples are easy to find: we nod approvingly at those who take the sensible job, delay having children until they’ve amassed a sizable nest egg, or secure a home in the right zip code. 

None of these things is intrinsically bad. But what used to be deemed a matter of personal choice has become a universally applied, and culturally rewarded, standard. We eventually absorb this cultural consciousness so much that it becomes increasingly difficult to extricate it from our own. When we do so, we can allow this cultural pressure to squeeze out our own ability to understand what the good life looks like for us, for our family, for our children. And so we imitate what we see others do, what we see consistently rewarded and praised and reinforced.

In other words, what we see as virtuous is, really, a form of false prudence.

This false virtue of risk aversion is so entrenched that collectively and individually, we can no longer distinguish a good, healthy, well-discerned risk from an imprudent one. We’ve utterly lost what it means to discern which risks are worth taking, and which are better avoided. And good models are vanishingly few.

All isn’t lost. There are subcultures that have started to embrace risk, though they’re still in the minority. One example is the so-called free-range parenting movement, a rebellion against sedentary, screen-obsessed childhood and a call to let children loose to engage in risky, unsupervised play. And there are those who are maximalists when it comes to having children to begin with, an undeniably risky and bold move in a world where the birthrates continually fall. For example, economist Catherine Pakaluk showcases the lives of college-educated women who’ve chosen to have five or more children and, in doing so, pause or even forgo their careers, hobbies, and personal freedoms. 

I also see evidence of increasing risk tolerance in my circle: the couple who aren’t sure they can support a family on a medical resident’s income, but choose to be open to life anyway; the young father who trades a higher salary in a big city for proximity to family in his hometown; the family that spends money they may not have in order to be abundantly generous to someone else, someone whose needs far exceed theirs. 

All of these acts will feel offensive to the risk-averse among us, and yet this is the very beating heart of human lifethe home, family, and community. Nurturing all three necessarily requires ceding some level of control. Letting other people into our lives means welcoming risks of all kinds. And the more we can steep ourselves in such thinking, in such ways of living, the more palatable it will feel.

Letting other people into our lives means welcoming risks of all kinds. And the more we can steep ourselves in such thinking, in such ways of living, the more palatable it will feel.


A Path Forward?

But encouraging this type of measured risk-taking, and fostering the discernment necessary to do so, requires a significant shift in our understanding of risk tolerance. First and foremost, we can shift the way we think about risk. This means allowing for opportunities to tolerate, or even invite, discomfort. This requires some self-examination, focusing on strengthening our own discernment skills rather than immediately running to the phalanx of hired professionals we’ve engaged to help us make decisions. Granted, in many cases, the wise counsel of a therapist or spiritual director is helpful. But it cannot be a substitute for our own independent ability to reason well, to make well-ordered choices. 

We can do a lot to increase our risk tolerance. For example, before immediately dismissing an idea or squelching a certain desire, we can ask: but what if? Particularly in the context of marriage and family, swimming against the cultural tides can feel risky, yet can expand our capacities for discomfort and joy. What about getting married younger than most, and before your career is settled, instead of waiting until you’ve established yourself in the corporate world? What about moving back to your hometown so you can surround yourself with family and community, even if that limits your career options? What about changing careers to accommodate a growing family? What about having just one more child even when you think you should be “done”?

On the institutional level, too, there might be some room for improvement. For instance, what would it look like for educational institutions to encourage students to think about preparing for family life as well as the marketplace? Choosing a liberal arts major instead of a more “practical” one, for instance, could be labeled risky, particularly in an increasingly competitive job market. But it could, in many cases, leave ample room for students to pursue work they find meaningful (not just economically viable), and form themselves as whole persons. And in the workplace, employers could do far more to mitigate the so-called “motherhood penalty” that stems from women’s choosing to take time off after having children (also a risky move, particularly for professional women or those with higher degrees). 

Risks are essential to human flourishing. By taking measured risksto our sanity, our financial stability, our perceived safetywe explore the limits of our ability to withstand discomfort, a posture that then allows us to care for others. In this way, well-ordered risk-taking is fundamentally others-oriented. We risk our physical and mental health by welcoming a baby, for instance, or taking care of an ill or aging family member. We risk our financial solvency by choosing to forgo paid work for a time (or indefinitely) to care for children or other dependents. We risk wounding our pride by trying to patch up a strained relationship or reaching across a political or ideological divide to forge a friendship. And by avoiding such risks, we retreat further into the confines of our own selfish comfort. It may be safe there, emotionally and otherwise, but it will also be unbearably lonely. 

It’s time to roll up our sleeves, then, and open our doors to what we might instinctively eschew but that makes life enduringly good, inestimably valuable.

Image by zhukovvvlad and licensed via Adobe Stock.