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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Art of Risk (and Family Travel) – a Q&A with Author Kayt Sukel

As a family travel writer, I often hear that going abroad with my kids is a risky proposition—and it’s always confused me a bit. Kayt Sukel, a fellow writer and travel blogger at Travel Savvy Mom, has been fed that line a time or two herself. Her new book, The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution and Chance, takes a hard look at “risk” – what it is, what it isn’t, and why we should, as parents and individuals, be encouraging more of it, at home and abroad. I’m excited to share this Q and A with her—and encourage you to pick up a copy of the book (I'll be posting a review myself soon)!

Frisco Kids: You’ve traveled with your son across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. What do you say to people who tell you that it’s too risky? 

Kayt: I usually start by quoting Mark Twain and say something about travel being fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness—and that I think it’s a bigger risk for my children not to explore and learn those important skills. For those who are terrified of travel, that usually ends the conversation. They think I’m nuts and we just agree to disagree. But for those who are honestly curious—and, often, I think, looking for permission to travel with their own kids—it usually leads to a wonderful discussion about how to best travel with kids. I usually learn a thing or two myself in the process.

So, in your book, you take issue with the way we talk about risk in pop culture. So…what is risk? 

We talk about risk in extremes. We throw around sayings like “He who dares, wins,” and “High risk, high reward.” It’s something our heroes, whether they are firefighters or artists or entrepreneurs, harness for success. It’s the thing that will lead us to greatness and glory! Taking risks is what will get us the money, the prestige, the glory, and the girl. But then we turn right around and talk about risk as if it’s the worst thing in the world. It’s the stuff of disease, injury, death – and something to be mitigated, if not outright avoided, at all costs. But the truth is risk is simply a decision that has an uncertain outcome. So, yes, it has the possibility of danger—but it also brings the possibility of opportunity.

We often talk about risk-taking as if it is some type of personality trait. He’s a risk-taker, she’s a risk-taker. We believe some people are just different than the rest of us. But the truth is, risk-taking is just a decision-making process. And it’s something that isn’t good or bad—it’s necessary to learning and problem solving.

Wait…risk is necessary?

Indeed. You need some risk and unexpected outcomes so the brain can do its job and help you learn how to best interact with your environment. Think about something like learning how to play the piano. Sure, you could just bang away at Chopsticks over and over and over again. And you might master that song. But if you want to get better overall and expand your skill set, you need to take a risk. You need to attempt more difficult pieces. You may risk failure or embarrassment when you do so. You’ll definitely risk having to work harder. But it really is the only way you’ll gain the skills you need. If you always stick to the status quo, you may keep yourself very safe, but you aren’t going to get any better. The way to improve at anything, from business decisions to extreme sports, is to change the level of expectation and work at the edge. Risk, truly, is a critical component to learning, memory, and good decision-making.

That’s why toddlers and teenagers, in many ways, really are the ultimate risk-takers. They are wired to push boundaries so they can gain critical experience that will help them learn and grow. That’s why you see such explosive learning at these times. Toddlers are gaining the experience to become successful kids. They learn to walk, to fall, to run, and to communicate. It’s a big deal. Teenagers aren’t just temperamental idiots. Adolescents are gaining the experience to become self-sufficient adults and that requires a lot of risk-taking, too. It may be really painful for us parents to deal with it at the time but all that boundary pushing really has an important purpose.

How can parents best facilitate healthy risk-taking in kids, at home or while traveling?

It’s not easy. Because parents, particularly American parents, are supposed to keep kids safe. But here’s the thing: safety is an illusion to a large extent. And by protecting your kids too much during these times of important learning, you may be risking a lot of pitfalls for them later in life. Risk-taking is the way kids learn how to problem solve, build important cognitive and emotional regulation skills, work well with others, build resilience, and improve their game. And that’s whether your kid is going out for the hockey team at home or whether you are traveling to a place where they can see that not everyone grows up in a suburban split-level with two cars and a dog. You have to take a step back and let your kids flounder every now and again. And, hopefully, give them a somewhat soft spot to land when they do.

What about risk in our own lives? 

Adults, too, benefit from risk! Now that we know that our brains are plastic, they change over the course of our lives, being open to taking risks is important for our health and growth, too. So while we are beginning to accept that our kids need to take some risks to reap a world of benefits—we need to also make ourselves more open to uncertainty in our adult lives, too.

Thank you, Kayt, for an interesting perspective! 

A passionate science and travel writer, Kayt Sukel is the author of The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution and Chance, and This is your Brain on Sex: The Science Behind the Search for Love. I featured that book in a prior "what I'm reading post" - though the book had a slightly different name then. Read that one too! Kayt's work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Pacific Standard, the New Scientist, USA Today, the Washington Post, and National Geographic Traveler. She's awesome, and you should buy her books.

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