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Keeping kids safe: the risk rating system

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How protective do you want to be with your child? Do careless or disengaged parents miss their chance to save their kids from accidents or harmful activities? Do overprotective parents rob kids of initiative and make them fearful and risk-averse?

We wondered if one of our boys could possibly survive his childhood — and if he could ever go for a week without some kind of injury. He was the most accident-prone child you can imagine.

He also happened to be pretty good at math, and one day a quantitative way of talking to him about risk occurred to me (Richard).

“Son,” I said, “Things are risky in two different ways. Some are risky, because if something does happen, it will be really bad. Others are risky simply because by nature they have a fairly high chance of some kind of mishap occurring.

“For example, if you were hiking, there wouldn’t be too much chance of falling off a cliff, but if you did, you might get killed. Let’s call that a 1:10 risk, because on scales of 1 to 10, there might only be a '1' chance of falling off a cliff, but what could happen to you would be a '10.' So hiking is a '1:10 risk.'

“Now if you play basketball for a whole season, there might be a pretty high chance that you would get banged up once in a while — maybe a 9 or 10 chance, but it probably would be something fairly minor like a sprained ankle or a pulled ligament, so it would be a 10:1 risk.”

Then I gave him some case studies of some of the things he was doing, and he “scored” them according to how likely they would be to cause a physical problem and then on how serious that physical problem might be.

The whole discussion got him thinking more about risk, which was my goal, and it allowed me to make some points in a way that seemed analytical rather than personally critical. “For example, son, what if you were rock climbing with your friends and didn’t have the best equipment or supervision?”

He ranked that one as a 4:10 and began to get the point that what we wanted to avoid were things where the last number was high and the first number was inching up there also.

However we do it, we parents need to get our kids thinking about risk. So many young children, perhaps more with boys than girls, seem to think they are invincible and indestructible, and training them to at least give a little thought to the question of risk could save them from something small — or from something big.

But some balance is required here. If we warn kids too often or become overprotective in the extreme, the result will be timid children who don’t dare to try anything. Our real goal as parents should be to get them to think about risk, to evaluate it, and to decide logically, almost statistically, whether to accept the particular risk or not.

Richard and Linda Eyre are New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors who are in demand throughout the world as speakers on parenting and life balance. You can visit them anytime at www.TheEyres.com or at www.ValuesParenting.com.