Teaching Kids about Risk

Most people understand risk to mean some combination of the likelihood and severity of an unwanted outcome resulting from an encounter with a potentially hazardous situation or condition. In kid terms this means for any given activity:

  1. what can go wrong?
  2. how bad is it?
  3. how likely is it?

It’s also helpful to discuss risk in terms of trading risk for reward or benefit.

For example, the rewards of riding a bike include fun (the activity is intrinsically rewarding) and convenient transportation.

In adult risk-analysis terms, the above three aspects of risk equate to:

  1. hazard description
  2. hazard severity
  3. hazard probability

Some hazards associated with riding a bicycle include collision with a moving car, falling down, getting lost, having a flat tire, and being hit by an asteroid. A key point falls out of the above wording. To a risk analyst, bicycle riding is not a risk. Many risks are associated with bike riding, because many distinct hazards are connected to bike riding. Each hazard has an associated risk, depending on the severity and probability of the hazard.

Each hazard associated with bicycle riding differs in likelihood and severity. Getting hit by an asteroid is extremely unlikely and extremely harmful; but it is so unlikely that we can ignore the risk altogether. Colliding with a car can be very severe. Its likelihood depends greatly on bike riding practices.

Talking to kids about how to decrease the likelihood of colliding with a moving car helps teach kids about the concept of risk. Talking with them about the relative likelihood of outcomes such as asteroid strikes can also help.

Even young kids can understand the difference between chance and risk. The flip of a coin involves chance but not risk, unless you’ve placed a bet on the outcome. The same applies for predicting the outcome of contests.

I see a lot of articles aimed at teaching kids to take risks. Most of these really address helping kids build confidence and dispel irrational fears. Irrational fear often means errors in perception of either the severity (how bad is it) or the probability (how likely is it) of a hazard. Explicit identification of specific hazards will help conquer irrational fears and will help kids become more comprehensive in identifying the hazards (what can go wrong) associated with an activity.

This is good for kids, since they’re quick to visualize the rewards and benefits of an activity and take action before asking what can go wrong at all, let alone what are all the things that can go wrong.

Teach your kids about risk as a concept, not just about specific risks and hazards. They’ll make better CEOs and board members. We’ll all benefit.


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