Why Take the Chance: Letting your Child take Risks

Sharon Paley happened to read an article I wrote for Learning Disability Practice back in the Spring of this year. We became friends on Twitter, she liked the positivity of Downs Side Up and I greatly admired her work in the intellectual disability field. She introduced me to her former employers BILD (British Institute of Learning Disability) and we've since done some work together.

Sharon and her husband recently wrote this article for Voice, an Australian Magazine for parents of children with Down Syndrome. It deals with the subject of letting go, letting your child with a learning disability make choices, take risks.

This subject resonated deeply with me. I've always been a protective Mum since Mia was born, but when Natty came along with her health issues and vulnerabilities I became more so. My sensible, former teacher's head knows I have to let them try new experiences, often beyond their immediate capabilities and I do this. But often it is my husband shouting 'let go' while every fibre of my human instinct screams no.The following is Sharon and Mark's article from Voice, reprinted with permission. The original photos have been left out and I have substituted moments of 'carefully assessed risk taking' in our journey of parenthood. Believe me, the photographer (me) was shaking, feeling sick with fear, and tear stained in each and every case.

It took 20 minutes to persuade Natty to get in the water with the dolphin but I knew it would be worth it in the end.
Natty's fearless leaping into the sea frightened me more, but just look at her face!

Why take the chance?By Sharon Paley and Mark Wakefield

In this article we look at why it is important to let our children take risks.

Included are some strategies to help you let go and allow your children to trysomething new.

The problem with protectiveness
It is a natural urge to protect our children whether they have a disability or not: we
give them a time to be back home, we are being vigilant by the swimming pool or at
the beach, and on the list goes. These feelings however seem to be magnified for
parents when their child has additional needs. After all we know what a dangerous
place the world can be, don’t we? Often our worries are more about what we think
might happen rather about what is actually likely to happen.
We take chances (risks) everyday: crossing the road, driving a car or eating that
burger. But these are calculated and based upon our knowledge of what is actually
likely to happen when we do these things. Our worry for our children is that they
don’t recognise additional risks and will make poor decisions because of their
difficulties. However many of these risks are what make life worth living, and with
the right help and support we can enable our children to learn how to make good
decisions or at least support them to do some of the things that the rest of us take for
How many times have you been disappointed or annoyed by others who they have
made assumptions about your child’s abilities, based on their disability? And yet, by
being protective of our children, we can be guilty of the same thing! Your child has
fantastic abilities and wants to be like any other toddler, adolescent, teenager or adult.
This article is to help you recognise and overcome some of the defensive strategies
we, as parents, tend to develop. While we don’t advocate that we allow our children
to do absolutely anything they like, we can enable them to take positive risk that will
enhance and enrich their lives.

Risk taking that concerns parents

  So, what are the sorts of risks parents usually feel concerned about? This list isn’t
  exhaustive but parent concerns are often in relation to:
• personal risks, the sort associated with bullying or name calling
• social risks, such as making new friends or being part of a peer group who may
  present a risk
• emotional risks, associated with developing strong bonds and attachments to
  others or the risks associated with emotional expression for example the ability
  to control feelings of anger or frustration in an appropriate way
• emerging sexuality and the desire to have a relationship
• physical risks, such as being injured in taking on a new activity

Positive Risk Taking

Positive risk taking promotes the taking of risks as part of a planned strategy.
However informal that plan is the core aims of positive risk taking are:
• developing a healthy lifestyle
• increasing opportunities to have new experiences be they social, educational or
  lifestyle enhancing
• developing communication skills, autonomy and independence
• increasing opportunities for new experiences
• engaging in new social circles, increasing friendships, relationships and support
• developing a sense of personal identity and enhancing self esteem.

Positive risk taking is aimed at ensuring that:

• risk taking is meaningful to that person and is aimed at increasing positive
   experiences in their life
• the person will develop new skills which will be valuable to them
• the person will develop their knowledge as a result of taking risk
• the person will increase their understanding of how to manage similar situations
  or experiences in the future and be able to problem solve when necessary.

Natty's first ride on a bumpy slide. I was always so afraid of her neck.
I had to look away during the trotting race in the gymkhana!

Risk and Personal Development

It’s important to remember that being able to take risks, manage risks and
unpredictable situations is part of human development. Children may develop at
differing rates and maturity may be delayed for some, however taking balanced risks
is part of growing up and healthy development. All children and young people should
be supported to take reasonable and calculated risks as this will help them to develop
skills that they will need as they mature into young adults. However it is
understandable that when a child has additional needs due to disability, illness or
family circumstances we can find it hard, as parents to take additional risks; we also
see risk where in reality there is little or no risk and the world becomes a dangerous
place of our own invention. Being protective of our child is a natural consequence of
loving them unconditionally, however this can actually be counterproductive to
enabling our child to experience usual life experiences.
To help us take positive risks we must first think about what risk is. Risk is a
continually changing and evolving concept; depending on the outlook and situation
or environment, risk may increase or decrease significantly. For example swimming
in a pool, which we can comfortably stand in, presents a level of risk; but swimming
in open water and being out of our comfortable depth presents a much greater risk,
even though the activity in itself is the same. We should also acknowledge that risks
can be minimised but to eliminate risk altogether from everyday life is impossible. It
is also possible to argue that for some people taking risk is actually exciting and they
are risk takers—for example, people who parachute or engage in other exhilarating
high adrenalin sports often relish the risk element of the activity.

The toboggan run.
I was guiding her down attached to a rope until a crowd formed, along with my husband, shouting 'Let Go!'.
I did. Just look at her face, then my relief and tears of pride.

Strategies Towards Positive Risk

Taking simple everyday risks can seem daunting to many parents, especially if your
child has additional difficulties on a day-to-day basis. It is important to view risk as a
positive benefit to your child and that in taking well thought through and calculated
risks you will be supporting them to develop skills they will need as they develop
and mature into young adults and beyond. There are six simple strategies that will
support you to start taking positive risk with your child:
1. Increase opportunities for your child to make choices. Sometimes you may
not agree with the choice your child makes. It’s important however to let them
start making some simple decisions for himself or herself. As a small child it
may be what they wear, the colour of their bedroom or a meal choice. As your
child grows older the choices that they make will be more personal to them
and they may conflict with your own choices (for them); for older children or
young adults their choices may include how to wear their hair colour, whether
to have piercing, whether to have a tattoo or how to spend their free time. It’s
important to remember that it is their choice and as long as the risks appear to
be balanced it may be better that you step back and support them in the
process of decision making. We often learn most from the decisions we get
wrong of course and that can be one of the most important lessons in life.
2. Support your child to try new things. How often have we tried something new
only to find out how much we enjoy it? Trying new activities or experiences
can be powerful experiences for us and can even be life changing. New
opportunities will enable your child to gain new skills and a greater
understanding of themselves. We often try to protect our child from trying
something new, believing it will be unsettling for them or upsetting, yet being
able to manage new situations and have new experiences is an invaluable
social experience and one which will increase our ability to develop important
communication skills, social skills and problem solving skills. For younger
children it may be the opportunity to visit a friend’s house for tea or go to their
first sleep over. As the parent of an older child or young adult they may be
going to dances, out to concerts or the theatre with friends for the first time or
perhaps having their first independent holiday.
3. Increase independence. Create opportunities for your child to increase their
independence. For very young children taking responsibility for a household
chore, feeding a pet or running a small errand will help develop their sense of
individuality and build confidence. As your child grows older you can build
on these important skills and encourage them to undertake activities with
friends outside of the family home, join clubs, volunteer for an organisation or
try new hobbies.
4. Be a positive role model. Take on new challenges yourself and be a good role
model with regard to taking positive risks. Think about how you can improve
the quality of life for yourself and your family by taking on new activities or
pursuing opportunities. You will on occasions have to manage crisis—of
course your example of being a good problem solver, staying calm and
responding to any difficulties is also important to enabling your child to
develop new skills. Managing crises, even incidental small family crises, is all
about risk management and avoiding more serious consequences. Watching
how adults mange difficult situations or face their own fears can be valuable
for your child. Your child will learn a great deal from simply observing your
5. Support positive interaction, and encouragement. Praise is one way to
communicate to your child when they have done well. A child who feels
valued for their achievements will be better placed to develop a sense of selfesteem
and value, which in turn increases personal confidence and decision
making skills. Praise and encouragement will change as a child matures, for
example you may praise a young child for clearing their dishes after a meal or
helping with a chore, a teenager may receive praise better when they have
been timely with school work or returned from a friend’s house on time. Look
for success and encourage any positive changes that your child makes in
response to your suggestions. Avoid being critical or domineering in the
language you use—for example, replace ‘try it this way’ with ‘have you
thought about this way of doing it?’ Even if you know your child has had
some small help in undertaking a task, praise will go a long way to developing
their independence and ability to take risks in small ways. Praising the effort
and energy your child has put into trying something new or changing a
behaviour is as important as recognising any achievements they make.
6. Increase interaction and communication. It may be that your child has some
communication difficulties. It is obviously important to find alternative ways
to help them communicate with others as ineffective communication can be a
real barrier to trying new activities and therefore impact on risk taking
opportunities. Look for opportunities to increase positive communication and
be sure that everyone who is part of your child’s support network knows how
best to help them interact with others or how to make their needs known.

Peer experience
When thinking consciously about risk taking for your child you must first of all
understand the benefits of the risk taking or the activity and how the possible
positive outcomes will match with your child’s learning and development needs. It is
often best to think about new activities or potential risks in comparison to
experiences that your son or daughter’s peers, who do not have Down syndrome,
will experience. Are their experiences broadly similar, if they are not why is this the
case is and what can be done to support your son or daughter to increase
opportunities for them? The benefits of positive risk taking for your child will be an
increase in:
• confidence in their own ability and capacity to try out new challenges even if
they do not always succeed
• the sense of control they have in life, reducing feelings of helplessness or
victimisation and segregation from others in society
• participation as risk-taking develops personal skills for managing anxieties and
overcoming fears
• opportunities to practice important decision making—children often have no
voice of their own and risk taking is an opportunity to develop skills of
communication, interaction and increased autonomy)
• the development of a sense of individuality and increased personal knowledge
• personal motivation—risk taking enhances problem solving skills and leads to an
increased sense of personal achievement.

Weighing it up
We can learn nothing from playing it safe: by definition, in taking risks we will
sometimes fail. Risk taking in life is beneficial and if we do not take risks we will
stop learning and important developmental opportunities are taken from us.
Arguably, taking positive risks and supporting your child to take positive risks is an
important aspect of their development, education and social learning. Don’t feel
afraid to take risks, don’t be afraid to support appropriate risk—risk is an educational
and life learning opportunity. Taking risk is to make a statement toward growth,
lifelong learning and increased independence.

Finally a short video clip of Natty on her very first solo Zip wire ride. 
We had done it a million times holding her and we were sure she knew not to let go. 
That said I still felt physically sick as she did it.

Sharon Paley and Mark Wakefield are husband and wife. Sharon has worked in

the intellectual disability field since 1982 and is widely published in the UK. In
2011 Sharon received the prestigious Florence Nightingale Scholar award.
Mark qualified as a teacher in the UK in the early 1990s and specialises in the
development of individualised packages of support for people, carers and
professionals. Sharon and Mark have recently moved to Australia


  1. Great article and fantastic picures. Make the opportunities and let the child make the choice.
    Alan Watkins-Groves

    1. Sharon Paley is an amazing practitioner and writer. I can only take credit for the photos. Thank you.

  2. Love all your pics as well as the words; they show just how much she is enjoying the risk-taking. As Mums we do sometimes have to be the sensible ones, but you're right that shouldn't stifle their chances of trying new things, and get in the way of that exhiliration of adrenalin rush!!

  3. i spent the last 6 years persuading parents of disabled children to let them take risks - it would be worth it, but letting my child do it was a different story. It took a very brave TA to confront me and say he CAN do it and like you I watched through my fingers and tears but bursting with pride. My sister tells me that his biggest disability is me and I am sure she is right

  4. There is a lovely saying "the dignity of failure" It is OK to fail. We all learn from risks. Dev surprises us all the time. She got lost getting of the bus at the "wrong" spot, but so did my husband (I did not blame that on DS..) Just recently we were in Vietnam on an educational exchange (long wonderful story) but I wanted Dev to be with me (low risk). She ended up going with another adult to a different site and had the "best day ever" TEACHING a class of 1st year college students conversational English (and more...)! I never would have thought that would happen. More to come on that story at RaiseExpectations...


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