Risk management

We all want to keep our children safe, but it’s vital that they’re allowed to take some risks. How can parents achieve a sensible balance?


Memories of our childhood snowball fights, mud pies and conker matches can feel like a bygone age! In today's ‘cotton wool culture’, children are rarely left to play freely and learn from life's hard knocks. Many parents have a ‘worst case scenario’ attitude, even if the risk is just a scraped knee.

Parents also worry about unsupervised activities outside the home, like going to the shops. In 1971, 80 per cent of seven and eight-year-olds travelled to school alone. By the 1990s, the figure had dropped to nine per cent.

Research suggests that one of the biggest safety worries for many parents is accidents outside the home. Actually, accidents in the home are far more common and boys under four years old are most at risk.

Despite this, many experts do fear that parents are too risk-averse, and youngsters should be allowed to bruise and cut themselves if they are going to learn how to keep themselves safe. There are many anecdotal stories of situations where schools have been accused of over-the-top precautions. One school bought industrial safety goggles for playing conkers and another banned the sack and three-legged races from sports days in case of injuries.

One explanation for these extreme measures is that the UK has become such a litigious society. Local authorities are afraid of being sued for even a minor scrape.

Children generally enjoy risk. They like scary stories, fairground rides and the baddies in movies.


Daily life involves risk and children must learn to manage it. They need to understand that the world can be dangerous and must be negotiated with care. Unfortunately, the most powerful lessons come from misjudging the level of risk. A toddler who ignores the warning, ‘It’s hot! Don’t touch!’ will discover what ‘hot’ means and won’t make that mistake again!

To really learn the lesson, children need to see the consequences of being careless and this is where it can be so hard for parents to set a delicate balance between letting them ’learn from their mistakes’ and allowing them to get hurt.

Children generally enjoy risk. They like scary stories, fairground rides and the baddies in movies. From infancy, they are programmed to want to take risks, like climbing and riding bikes. Many experts believe that children need to take risks sometimes, and experience the results. If you over-protect them from risk-taking, they won’t learn their own limitations.

Parents who over-analyse the potential dangers in every situation can encourage anxiety in some children, or recklessness in others. Children who learn to make their own decisions rather than blindly obeying others will be better-equipped to resist the pressures they’ll face as they get older.

It's managing the risk which lies at the core of the issue – and that’s something parents understandably find hard. Parents obviously want to protect their children from harm. But if you over protect them, they may grow up lacking the skills they need to make safe, wise decisions.

One mum handles it this way: ‘I work on the basis that you protect when you need to, and try to let them discover the world on their own as much as possible. Otherwise, you end up with kids who are scared of their own shadow.’


Have plenty of conversations with your children to help them consider how they’d manage various scenarios. For example:

  • What do you think will happen if you do that/don't do that?
  • Who could you ask for help?

If your child is especially cautious, think about your parenting style. Are you interfering or enabling? Do you tell or suggest? Interfering can produce fearful children who lack confidence and decision-making skills. Risks are great learning opportunities, so put your fears in context, discuss problems and don't rush in to fix everything!

Encourage your children as they try new skills. Take a step back and let them solve problems independently, even if it takes ages! As their role model, take positive risks in your stride. You’ll send a powerful message that sometimes it’s okay to feel unsure and make mistakes.

Some children can seem particularly reckless, particularly in a physical way. As parents, your natural urge is to try to curb them but remember that rough-and-tumble play actually helps children learn to control their emotions and bodies. They learn their limits as well as others’, so they don't lose control and hurt anyone. Childproof your home, keep your sense of humour, and save battles for when your child's safety really is at stake.

Risks are great learning opportunities, so put your fears in context, discuss problems and don't rush in to fix everything!


Here are some ‘positive’ risks that your child should be able to explore in a controlled situation:


  • develop body co-ordination, like using age-appropriate apparatus at the park.
  • learn to manage natural risks like ice.
  • learn to use tools and equipment safely.


  • develop reasoning skills, such as disagreeing with you and being allowed to explain why.
  • learn to negotiate and to say no.
  • learn to handle success, failure, boredom, pleasure and anxiety.


  • try new things.
  • Explore problem-solving, creativity and resourcefulness.


Under Twos


  • Leave them safely unattended in a buggy or playpen for two minutes when you are at home, so they get used to you being out of sight occasionally.
  • Let them try going upstairs. Stay right behind and teach them to hold onto the bannister.


  • Anything sharp, hot, electric or poisonous.
  • Leaving them alone for more than a few minutes.

Two-to-four-year olds


  • Exploring the great outdoors. Ignore mess and dirt, but stay nearby when they try to eat soil or a worm!
  • Some unsupervised play in a safe environment - stay within earshot though.


  • Unsupervised use of knives or scissors.
  • Plugging in electrical devices.

Five-to-seven year olds


  • Walking to the local shop, with you following right behind. Let them handle small amounts of money and work out the change
  • Helping to chop soft things like bananas, or cracking an egg, after you’ve done a demo!


  • Surfing the Internet or watching television without guidance.
  • Sleepovers when you’ve not met the host family.


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