'NYC Prep' and the perils of poor choices

Children must learn to take risks that promote confidence and accomplishment. Here's how.

"NYC Prep" just had its season finale, and it seems everyone from high school students to TMZ is talking about it; the latest in TV reality shows. It's a perspective on the seamy pettiness of a handful of wealthy teenagers.

These teens were filmed spending most of their time (when not in school) shopping, going to fashion shows, dining at expensive restaurants, and espousing their narrow perspectives on life. Though it's certainly not life typical of all teens, the resulting banality is exactly what happens to you when you don't challenge yourself, or your children.

The lives of the "NYC Prep" teens are largely devoid of healthy risks – so they fill their lives making poor choices. Their wealth pampers them and encloses them in a world of petty gossip and unhealthy risk-taking. One of the boys this season, for example, alludes to using cocaine. Another one of the teens holds parties in her apartment rather than focusing on her schoolwork.

Unfortunately, such unwise risk-taking is not confined to reality television or the wealthy. Any child who has not learned to take good risks will take poor ones instead.

Examples include the 10-year-old who rides his skateboard on a busy street to show his friends how "cool" he is, or the 14-year-old who doesn't try out for the school chorus because she is afraid that she will be rejected. Left unchecked, these choices can severely limit a child's success and happiness.

Children of all ages need to challenge themselves by taking everyday risks that promote confidence, accomplishment, and a greater capacity for tolerance and compassion.

Toddlers take a risk when they move from crawling to taking those first steps. Elementary school-age children take a risk as they venture to raise a hand in class and articulate an answer to a question. Can you imagine what life for them would be like without overcoming those risks? Teens who try out for school musicals, sports, or run for class president are also taking essential risks.

Then there are the risks that come in subtler, more complex forms: taking the risk to study hard for a test – thereby acknowledging that you care about doing well; or confronting a friend about a misunderstanding and putting your feelings on the line.

The opportunity to engage is everywhere. Healthy risk-taking is inextricably linked with healthy development. Without good risk-taking, development falters.

We all want our children to be successful, and confident enough to leap at life's opportunities and triumph over setbacks along the way. And children are capable with our help.

Parents and educators can facilitate good risk-taking not only by being models, but by listening carefully to their children, by attending to their strengths, and by creating situations in which children can safely take the next step. The sooner we help facilitate healthy risk-taking, the sooner our children can make better decisions on their own.

With some encouragement, the boy on "NYC Prep" might challenge himself by testing out his strong verbal skills and joining his school's Model UN team. Or he could use his notable strengths and free time to tutor a child from the South Bronx, or volunteer for an environmental organization. Instead of hiding in the cozy position of cynicism, he could tap into some great potential.

A healthy challenge might feel uncomfortable, even frightening at first, but with the support of a parent or teacher, he could eventually gain the confidence to take a positive risk.

Children need to feel challenged and to engage in behaviors that help them test their mettle. It is only by stretching ourselves that we learn and help realize our own potential. It's up to parents to help children learn to take the healthy risks that make them strong, unafraid of failure, and poised to lead gratifying and productive lives.

Children who are good risk-takers are well prepped for life.

Nancy Eppler-Wolff and Susan Davis authors of "Raising Children Who Soar."

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