Tips for Parents: Risk-taking and Risk-making
Delisle, J.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Jim Delisle, who provides advice for overcoming perfectionist tendencies that may hamper exploration. Delisle discusses strategies parents can use to get their children to explore new options, even when it means they may not be the very best in this area.

2011 Seminar Tips

Risk-taking and Risk-making

Life is filled with subtlety . . .nuance. Shades of grey often predominate over the starkness of blatant black and white. In profoundly gifted (PG) children, noting this subtlety seems to be a part of their DNA. They take very little at face value because, well, there are simply too many sides to any issue or any event. Thus, when PG kids are presented with the distinction between risk-taking (rt) and risk-making (rm), they nod a nod of recognition—and they see the benefits of understanding these related, yet distinct, concepts.

Here are the distinctions: risk-taking emanates from an outside source—a parent, a teacher, a coach—who asks a child to try something new or to take a current activity and “ramp it up” to a higher level. When the risk is offered, the child has the option of taking it or not. With risk-making, the person who is compelled to initiate a new activity or expand an existing one is the child him/herself. Instead of waiting for someone else to invite you to try algebra, tennis, or chess, you, as the child, take the proverbial bull by the horns and elect to enter this activity due to your own interest in doing so.

If you understand and accept the subtle distinction between rt and rm, you also need to recognize some possible consequences of the dynamic. For example, if you take a risk suggested by someone else, then your first allegiance to succeed is often to the individual who offered this idea to you. Your success makes them happy first, and you second. And if you “fail”, the disappointment is often deep because you didn’t live up to the standard that someone else thought you capable of attaining. In making a risk through your own volition, when you succeed, you pat yourself on the back for having done so well, and if things don’t turn out as planned, well . . .there’s always next time.

With PG kids, making a risk is often easier than taking one. This is especially true in PG children who are perfectionistic or dissatisfied with anything but the best. In a sense, they “put their smartness on the line” every time they take on a task where success is not assured. If this risk was self-generated (rm), there may still be disappointment if things didn’t pan out, but at least this disappointment is their own. It’s a matter of psychological safety, really: if you succeed or fail on your terms instead of someone else’s, there is usually a sense of greater control over your own personal destiny.

In everyday life, PG kids—actually, all of us—are presented regularly with risks of both the “taken and maken” kind. How do we encourage these capable kids to benefit from opportunities offered by others as well as those they design themselves? Here are some clues from people who have been there: parents of PG kids.

  • Discuss the rt/rm distinction with your child. As mentioned earlier, PG kids often live in the Land of Nuance, so many will appreciate the subtleties between these two terms. Discuss what they look like in your child’s life, and ask your child if this distinction seems to apply to any times in his/her past or present life.

  • Become a “Partner in Persuasion”. For kids who are averse to taking risks for fear of not doing well, a great strategy is to take the risk with them. Whether it’s ice skating or taking a tough class (together or separately) that’ll challenge your mind’s limits, when you “walk the walk” of risk-taking alongside your child, your doing so sets an example that words alone can’t convey.

  • Encourage—and notice—small successes. Often, PG kids can master an activity or topic with very little effort. Things come readily to them—and perhaps always have—so having the mental stamina to take things step-by-step may not be a skill they’ve acquired. Help them to notice the small successes along the way, even if it’s something as small as hitting only three sour notes on your tenor sax instead of the ten you hit last month. You’ll be a lot more confident in running a marathon if you’ve completed a series of 10K runs first.

  • Know when to stick . . .and know when to dabble. Parents of some PG kids get aggravated when their very capable child begins an activity in earnest only to give it up weeks later. “All that effort for nothing…”, a parent might think. However, since PG kids (especially young ones) are in search of exploring the many interesting facets of our world, get comfortable with your child as a dabbler; a kid who would rather taste a bit from many pieces of life’s smorgasbord than to eat a complete meal all in the same place. Of course, there are benefits to stick-to-itive-ness, but if your child stays at the dabbler stage for a while (five college majors in two years???), try to understand the benefits, not just the drawbacks, of this lifestyle preference.

The distinction between rt and rm is just one of the many dynamics that parents of PG children face. As the children mature into young adults, facing more opportunities both of their own design and those offered by others, perhaps they will become more secure in both “making and taking” if they understand the ramifications of each.

Jim Delisle retired as a Distinguished Professor of Education at Kent State University in 2008. Currently, he is President of Growing Good Kids, Inc., an organization that serves gifted children and those who work on their behalf. He is the author of 16 books and more than 250 articles.


2007 Seminar Tips

Risk-Taking and Risk-Making: A new way to view why we behave as we do

It’s neither a secret nor a surprise that profoundly gifted (PG) children have high expectations for themselves, academically and otherwise. Like most of us, they prefer to do things in which they excel, and like most of us again, they tend to avoid things where they are not very successful. Human nature, we call it.

However, there are times when the standards of excellence for PG children are set so high that there is virtually no way for them to succeed. Perfection, that always-elusive but tempting beast in the back of your mind, becomes paralyzing for all but the most secure of our kids.

Over the years, I have found an interesting dynamic at play when PG kids are faced with a task, event or circumstance where their success cannot be assured. I label this distinction as the “Risk-taking/Risk-making Dichotomy”. Here’s what it looks like. In risk-taking, the child is being asked (some might say “coerced”) into doing something because someone else—a parent, teacher or coach, for example—feels it will be good for them to try. It could be anything from taking a more challenging class where an “A” is not guaranteed to joining into a team sport that has never been played before. Some PG children (and other kids as well) will avoid such “invitations”, or enter into them reluctantly, fearing failure in one form or other. And in risk-taking, if you “fail”, you disappoint most the person who asked you to take the risk in the first place. All kinds of erroneous ideas might then appear in the child’s head—“See? I’m not as smart as everyone says I am” or “I know I disappointed you and that makes me feel awful.” Some of these statements will be verbalized . . .many will not. Still, the gnawing sense of not being good enough is a common consequence of failing a risk that was offered by another.

In risk-making, no one is pushing the child to perform; rather, the child is “pulling” him/herself along due to their own interest and aspirations. “Mom, I’ve always wanted to learn to play cello. Could I start taking lessons?” Or, “I realize I might not get an “A” in that AP History class, but anything is better than being bored every day in my regular class.” In these instances (and others like them), the child initiates the desire to learn something new. So if s/he succeeds as hoped . . .how cool is that? And, if the efforts taken amount to less than full success, the person you most have to live with is yourself, which is often easier than thinking that you have disappointed someone else you care to impress.

In talking with parents of PG kids, this risk-taking/making distinction rings true in several arenas: academic, social and extracurricular. As one parent said, “it differentiates for me just how hard it is for my kids to feel successful in their everyday world . . .it’s the illogical nature of needing to take risks based on someone else’s standards, versus being appreciated for their own creative impulses. In many respects, kids like this are required to take so many risks just to get through their days, it’s no wonder they’re either too exhausted, or too annoyed, to want to push themselves any further than they already do!”

If this distinction makes sense to you, here are some steps to take, endorsed by other parents of PG kids. First, explain the risk-taking/making dichotomy to your children and see if they understand it and agree that it exists. Then, follow this up with a few real-life examples of when they took or made risks themselves, and ask them to recall how they felt about their successes or defeats in these instances.

Next, explain that the biggest risks—taken or made—should be entered into with the idea that some new and difficult learning takes place in small steps—something PG kids aren’t used to taking when it comes to learning something new. So, if your child is afraid of a roller coaster with 15 double-loops, perhaps it’s best to begin on the “Little Dipper” baby coaster, working yourself up to the “Stratospheric Screamer” only after you’ve mastered all the Little Dipper’s hills.

Further, as your PG kid enters a new world of challenge with a risk made, ask him/her what s/he expects to gain after exploring this topic or interest for a week . . .a month . . .a year. Too often, intelligent kids see only the end goal and not the steps it takes to get there (similar to the Little Dipper example above). Check in with your child periodically to “get the pulse” on whether the feelings of pleasure and success still surround this new-found interest.

Lastly, be ready to explain to your own child some of the times in your life when you took or made risks, and the drawbacks and benefits derived from doing so. As much as you might think that your kids get bored hearing about your personal exploits, there are times when it is more than appropriate to acknowledge to them that you, too, once struggled with how good was good enough.

Risk-taking and risk-making both have their advantages. In risk-taking, many PG children are willing to assume someone else’s prodding if they believe that person has both credibility and patience. Without these two qualities, fear prevails more than excited anticipation. In risk-making, the child who assumes self-made risks feels a greater sense of accomplishment and personal fulfillment once the self-set goals are attained. And “failure”? Generally, it gets redefined to be something less onerous than it once was, since your own personal disappointment is often easier to accept than the disappointment of an important other. Certainly, this distinction is not the only variable influencing whether a PG child wishes to assume a new endeavor, but it might be one more item in the psychological toolbox that helps you better understand your PG child’s motivations to act upon his or her learning.

Jim Delisle is Distinguished Professor of Education at Kent State University and a part-time teacher of gifted children in Twinsburg, Ohio. He was written more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles about gifted children and those who care about them.


2002 Seminar Tips

Risk-taking and Risk-making -- Understanding When Less Than Perfection is More Than Acceptable

Remember the last time you ventured out in a totally new direction, unencumbered by anyone's expectations but your own; an individual goal focused on learning or becoming something (or someone) new? Usually, whether you succeeded to your satisfaction or not, you probably gave yourself a pat on the back for even putting forth effort. Conversely, do you recall a time when someone else--a teacher, a parent, a spouse--prodded you to try something that you might not have attempted without their external urging? What happened when you succeeded...failed? Who was the first person you thought might be pleased...disappointed?

I raise these questions because they point out a distinction that is too-seldom appreciated when we are trying to help our gifted children accept new challenges--the difference between risk-taking and risk-making. In risk-taking, someone is often pushing you to accept a risk ("Wouldn't you like to learn to ski so that you can join the rest of us on winter weekends?") that was not on your personal agenda; in risk-making, you are the person doing the pulling ("Gee, I'd really love to learn how to ski!"). The dynamics of risk-taking vs. risk-making, pushing vs. pulling, is worth considering, especially with easy-to-criticize-themselves children who are highly gifted and used to (addicted to?) success.

Here is what I have learned, both in my career as an educator and my role as a dad, when it comes to understanding the dynamics of risks:

  • Someone needs to explain to children the distinctions between risk taking and making, asking them to recall situations where one of the two was more in evidence. Then, you can begin a discussion of the "comfort level" one feels in each situation.

  • Some people find it easy to make (or take) a risk in an area of relative comfort. For gifted children, this is often an academic area or intellectual skill. Yet when it comes to physical tasks (like trying out for the soccer team), social tasks (going to a sleepover where you only know one other kid), or emotional risks (telling someone your true feelings about them or an incident that affected you), the level of anxiety may be heightened, especially if the risk is imposed from someone else.

  • Adults talk a good game about the benefit of taking risks, yet how well do they model this behavior? For example, how often do you take on a challenge in an area where you have no expertise or little obvious interest? If the answer is "not very often", consider the message this inactivity might be sending to your child.

  • Highly gifted children may tend to focus on what they can already do well because their only standard of acceptability is perfection. To some gifted children, a "B" is tantamount to failure, which limits your risk taking/making behavior to the ol' stand bys: areas in which you have excelled in the past.

  • Risk-taking (the one that is accompanied by external prodding) is often more acceptable for younger children than older ones, and may, in fact, be a good way to teach your child early that perfection is not the goal of a new and learning are the primary goals.

  • The best people to convince gifted children that perfection isn't all it's cracked up to be may not be parents (or, for that matter, any adult). Instead, think of using the advice and "peer wisdom" of a child who is two-four years older than your child. This "near peer" usually has more credibility than does an adult who, from the child's view, went to school while the Earth was still cooling. So...bring in the reinforcements: near peers can entice children to take and make risks in productive and meaningful ways.

  • As a parent, you do know your child very well--better than your child may think. Therefore, there are times when it is within your parental purview to make a suggestion to your child that you think s/he will like once they get into it. The best way to convince your son or daughter, though, is to offer them an out. Piano lessons? long as the child can quit in six months if it's just not enjoyable. Same for ice skating. Same with advanced math. No adult I know makes a long-term contract with the unknown...why should your child?

These are just some tips to help acclimate your child to the idea that life is not perfect, and neither are they, yet the sun still rises every new day. Risk-taking and risk-making, and understanding the distinctions between them, might go a long way toward enriching your gifted children's lives--from both their vantage and yours.

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