Risk-taking Revisited

Waynflete Athletics, Waynflete School, Portland, Maine. photo: Brian Beard

In case you missed it, a few months ago, Steve Kautz wrote an article in USNOW drawing from his long experience as a baseball coach and teacher.  The article, entitled “Hey Batter, Batter … Swing Batter!”, reports a surprising phenomenon he has witnessed over and over again from the dugout; some batters would rather look at strike three than swing at it.

The empirical difference between the two is that if a player takes strike three looking, he is guaranteed to be out; if he swings at a pitch in the strike zone, however, he might put it in play.  Thus, the choice not to swing is a mystery that, according to Steve, “can only be understood as something related to risk taking.  The fear of swinging that bat and missing, of actually trying and then hearing “Steeeerike Three!” from the umpire, can freeze a batter, even though, of course, strike three still comes along complete with the umpire’s screech and the coach’s stare.”

Risk-taking seems to present parents and educators with a basic conundrum when it comes to youth in their charge.  On one hand, adults have an instinct to keep them safe by protecting them from risk. Waynflete is certainly strives to prevent negative risk-taking.  Each year I warn students of the consequences of using alcohol and other drugs during Outdoor Experience.  The ninth grade seminar has an extensive unit on risk prevention.  We hold programs each year for parents on communicating with their children about risky behavior.  We surveyed Upper School parents about their strategies to prevent dangerous risk-taking, which Dean of Students Lydia Maier summarized in a recent USNOW article entitled The Prevention Partnership.

On the other hand, if we adults actually do succeed in eliminating risk from the lives of the youth in our charge, they would be far from safe.  They would stagnate and wither, because human growth is dependent on risk-taking.  As pointed out in a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, overprotection is detrimental to youth as they will be “more fearful and less creative” than they would be if they were allowed to take more risks.  Most parents and educators want the young people in their charge to grow into autonomous adults, but that happens best when they are encouraged to make real choices, which means that from time to time that they will make real mistakes.  Thus, safety and growth can seem to be mutually exclusive.

Fortunately, raising children is actually less of a conundrum than it may appear to many.  In fact, the best strategy for preventing negative risks is to promote positive risk-taking because positive risk-taking is the healthy means for young people to form their identities.  The more engaged they are with creating their identities, the less apt they are to take risks that might thwart that growth.

In fact, promoting positive risk-taking is a defining quality of the Upper School experience.  My opening talk this year to the Upper School students encouraged positive risk taking.  A few weeks later, Geoff addressed the Upper School for the first time, telling a story of a time that he took a risk, which we followed with a risk-survey of students.  Shortly thereafter, alum Lucas O’Neil addressed an Upper School assembly and described how comedy improv taught him the importance of taking risks or, as he put it, making “one bold choice” on the stage and in life.

Glancing through the archives of USNOW, one will find what seems like an anthology of stories on the benefits of positive risk-taking.  It is apparent that everywhere Waynflete students turn – in and out of the classroom – they are offered chances to go out for a sport, to try out for a play, to compete in some interscholastic event, or to stretch themselves in some way, whether it is Carol Titterton bribing Sophie Benson to participate in the MEST-Up TV game show with a box of Munchkins or Steve Kautz recruiting students to join LifeSmarts or Ray Morrow suggesting to Joey Schnier that he’d make a great bass player for the jazz combo or the performing arts faculty supporting Avalena Linsky in directing a play or Lydia Maier recruiting students to join the Girls Leadership Group or Ben Mini leading 43 students to Maine Model UN or countless other examples that happen daily at Waynflete.

As illustrated in Al Ghorashi’s article on the robotics team, Learning from Mistakes, when young people are encouraged to pursue activities that interest them in which they are allowed to fail and try again, the opportunities to learn and grow and become passionate about something are limitless.  So, the next time you see a young person hesitating to take a risk, do what Steve Kautz and the rest of the Waynflete faculty would do: Encourage him or her to get in the game and take a big swing.  There are few more hopeful and powerful forces on earth than a young person ready and fired up to make bold choices.