Caution Tape

Learning to Handle Risk

There has been a lot of interest in this topic lately. Part of it is the prevalence of helicopter parents who work hard to prevent their kids from being exposed to risks of any kind. When I was a kid, my parents just sent me outside to play. Where I went and what I did was pretty much up to me, although based in part on the smarts and values that my parents had previously instilled. I wandered pretty far afield. And I got into a fair amount of trouble. But for the most part, I got myself out of it.

But adults have come to the mistaken view “that children must somehow be sheltered from all risks of injury,” Frost writes. “In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.”

The problem with today’s common model of tightly controlled play dates and overscheduled activities is that unless kids get exposed to risk and forced to deal with it personally, they never learn how. They don’t learn that even when they can’t fix a mistake, it is not the end of the world. They don’t develop the grit needed to persist through a long challenge. They don’t develop the resilience needed to accept negative consequences and integrate it into their world view and self-identity in a healthy way. Fortunately, a new movement to “free range” your kids is gaining some steam.

Another new model of overprotection is the anti-trigger warning. This one covers adults as well as kids. It is prevalent in the news and on college campuses. This is the idea that people should be warned before being exposed to sensitive topics like pornography or violence. In the news, we see this all the time when we are forewarned that we should leave the room or change the channel if we are sensitive to a particular topic or if we want to protect our kids from seeing it.

The problem is that this warning is being overused. For kids, the exposure can be essential to them learning about these serious topics as well as how to deal with traumatic feelings. This story talks about exposing college students to Hitler’s Triumph of the Will as well as visceral and tormented stories from Holocaust survivors. The author of the story, who was a student at the time, was shaken by the experience. But he looks back on it as a critical part of his education.

My Take

The reason that trigger warnings can be harmful is that when you are prepared for a controversial and uncomfortable topic, you can have your counterarguments primed or you can prepare yourself to tune out the topic completely. No pedagogical value of either of these experiences. Even if the student just suppresses his emotional response and still listens to the facts of the story, he loses the opportunity to practice how to deal with strong emotional responses. I agree that there is a worthy exception for someone who may be an actual victim of something like sexual assault and warning them in advance if that topic is going to come up. But the current practice takes this good intention way too far.

I bring up these issues here on the EID site because of at least two cases that I can think of where we have to consider these directly. One is in the design of warnings. Do we need to consider the anti-trigger objective as we design warnings for consumer products or workplaces? Do we need to add trigger warning designs to our ANSI Z535 standards? Or do we need to be careful when designing warnings that they aren’t so scary they can trigger a consumer.

But perhaps more importantly, we need employees who know how to deal with risk intelligently, competently, and persistently. We need them to have resilience to handle workplace situations that are distressingly negative, destructively damaging, or otherwise demoralizing and get over it and move on. We need to promote resilience, not hide from it.

Your Turn

Do you agree? This can be quite a controversial topic so I expect that many of you may disagree. Let us know in the comments.

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Image Credit: Gaertringen

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