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When should a child be allowed to take part in "dangerous" sports or activities?

I'm thinking of letting my son try motocross when he's "old enough" - but when is that, when is a child old enough to understand the risks involved? I've seen parents with children as young as 3-4 years old on small (50cc - circa 5-10mph) bikes, some with stabilisers some without. By the time they're in their teens, they typically ride much larger and faster bikes at potentially lethal speeds.

Ignoring the motor-sport context, whilst it's rare, I'm conscious that simply breaking bones can result in death (usually either from compound bleeding or infection etc.) so I'm very aware of the potential consequences - but my child may not be.

My main motivation is that I want my child to learn some life-skills that many less "harmful" activities often lack - elements of bravery, commitment, physical fitness and large components of risk (assessment) and "face your fears" experience that I want my son to learn, to make a mensch out of him. I want to instil a sense of grit and determination and the ability to keep pushing when things get tough. IMHO, too many parents avoid exposing their children to life's difficulties (risk, losing, physical effort etc.).

Additionally, from my own perspective, I'd very much enjoy being able to spend time riding with my son - but I don't feel very comfortable exposing him to danger (especially when he's too young to understand the consequences). By the same token, I'm conscious that if he isn't exposed to the sport young enough, he'll be unlikely to reach a professional standard, if that were to be something he chose to pursue.

Does anyone allow their child to participate in a dangerous (or contact) sport? When did they start and how did you mitigate against the risks?

You can assume they'll be wearing all the best protective equipment and only riding in appropriate places (closed circuits, with riders of the same age) - never on public roads without a helmet etc...

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    Right now this is a pretty opinion-based question -- "should I" and "when" both boil down to, essentially, "can you tolerate that level of risk" and there's no particularly objective answer. (It's not the activity that's the issue, I don't think, just that risk assessment is an inherently subjective topic.) Your latter question about mitigating risks might be better to focus on. – Acire Feb 16 '15 at 12:17
  • I agree - the less subjective parts are about when a child can understand the concept of risk and what steps do parents take to safeguard their children in more "dangerous" activities. – Michael Feb 16 '15 at 13:21
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    All sports are dangerous. I mean I have seen people tear hamstrings while playing golf. Do you mean "Should I allow my child to participate in physical sports?" – Neil Meyer Sep 23 '15 at 17:10
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There are a few things we consider when kids are pushing to do certain activities. My daughter has taken ballet for years, and will be starting pre-pointe lessons soon. This sounds less frightening than motocross, but there are risks of both short-term injury and long-term foot structure damage if she doesn't practice, wear properly fitted shoes, and listen to her teacher.

  • Invest in proper equipment, and keep it well maintained and properly sized. This can get annoying and expensive (darn kids keep getting taller!) but it's important.
  • Long-term interest. If my child decide they want to try Very Risky Activity, and has zero background or knowledge about it (besides, say, "all my friends think it's cool"), that's not a very compelling argument. But I am definitely willing to research, and/or try something similar that's lower risk to work up to it.
  • Good instruction.
    • If the teacher isn't up front with me about the risks, I get concerned -- are they aware of the risks of injury, and are they able/willing to teach ways to reduce risk?
    • A lot of safety comes down to (1) proper form, and (2) not goofing around. If the teacher takes things seriously (discouraging goofing off) and ties otherwise tedious practice into safety explanations ("We stretch every class so you reduce the chance of a serious muscle pull"), they're conveying good information.
  • Practice. Much of this is so they learn proper form and technique that will keep them safer. But also -- if my child is not taking the sport seriously enough to put in the time to learn, he's probably more likely to be injured... and why am I bothering to invest all that time and money for something he isn't actually dedicated to?
  • Discuss the consequences that could potentially result. This is probably the most age-dependent factor, since you have to measure your child's maturity level, awareness of risk, tolerance of risk (some kids are scared of injury, others seem to not care at all), and ability to understand the consequences. It's important to ensure that:
    • the child knows possible negative outcomes (bruises, broken bones, concussion, death)
    • the child knows how relatively risky they are (bruises are likely, death is unlikely), but also how their behavior and approach to the sport can change those risks (death is more likely if you bike without a helmet)
    • the child knows you're going to be keeping an eye on this, and since you care about his safety, and if he starts misbehaving (biking without a helmet) there will be consequences (no more getting to bike)
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    There's also some evidence that certain sports, like (American) Football are terrible for children's long term health, especially as their related to the increased chance of concussions. Even proper training and equipment don't prevent some of these long-lasting injuries. Each sport is likely to have it's own increase in cerain injuries, and those injuries can have permanent effects. Even dancing has an incredibly high injury rate. – user11394 Feb 17 '15 at 4:08
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    @CreationEdge True. Even with preparation and forethought, it always just comes down to how much risk the parent and child are willing to tolerate. – Acire Feb 17 '15 at 12:16
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    Thanks for this answer. It's surprising how many parallels there are with ballet! :) I'll probably apply all of your answer and maybe wait until he's had a painful "off" on a bicycle, before offering the chance to upgrade ...then see if the interest is still there. – Michael Feb 17 '15 at 15:53
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I'm going to put an answer that is deliberately dual to Erica's excellent exposition on the practicalities.

I think absolutely yes. There is an issue with children at the moment that since they sit at home and play on tablets or gawk at the TV they don't actually do the things that us oldies did, like learn to to informal and natural risk assessments, learn to compete with others in person, get outside and get physical, all of which have massive benefits in terms of life skills. (Lots of references on this -- top professionals are deeply concerned about vulnerability issues in mid-late teens etc)

Also, the earlier the better. If the child starts doing something early on in life, they will start doing it when the risk is small and they are much more likely to listen to the instructor, and much less likely to be able to just nip off and do something stupid. They'll get a healthy respect for it.

My personal example of this is that I have a 6 year-old who I can completely trust to be outside with an axe on his own, because I have been using an axe with him since he was 2, and he has a very healthy respect for it, doesn't show off with it and has never had an accident.

In a similar way he does BMX and has a healthy respect for that too -- he does jumps, gets air, but won't push it over the top as he's learnt his limits from the low speed that he was confined to a year ago.

Anyway, I love that you're thinking of doing MX. Awesome idea, plus it'll get him into a whole new realm of community what with the races, engine fixing and really forge those life skills. Fantastic!

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    Good point on the "sweet spot" of the age -- once you hit tween+ years, there's a nothing-can-kill-me attitude that combines with an I-know-everything attitude, making it a bigger challenge to listen to a new instructor! – Acire Feb 16 '15 at 18:20
  • There is also a host of social skills that can be learned in playing team sports and also if the child is good enough he/she can also make a career out of it. – Neil Meyer Sep 23 '15 at 17:13
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Someone who sees and treats injuries routinely will look at things differently than most people. Deliberately putting oneself in harm's way is hard for me to understand (although I did so as a late teen as well.)

As a parent, I would never encourage my kids to engage in motocross, American football, race car driving, boxing, or other dangerous activities. (My kids did have mini-bikes and a go-cart with seat belts and roll bars. They partook in water sports, soccer, and other activities as well.

If the kid has an accident, and on getting out of rehab for his extensive injuries (which might also involve more surgery) says, "It was totally worth it!", then I say go for it. Start him off on a mini-bike and get him ever more powerful bikes.

As a parent, I want my children to do what they love, and to be wise. If your son has a burning desire to do motocross, that's one thing. But for a parent to actually encourage a dangerous activity? I just don't see it. There are plenty of fun things to do which are less harmful.

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    It's not just bull running. In the Midwest, it's common for rural communities to have Bull Riding contests at the High School level, as part of Rodeos. 4 years ago, a local boy (where I was living at the time), was stepped on by a bull during such an event. He wasn't gored or at all hit with the horns. Nonetheless, the bull stepping on him caused severe internal injuries (one of his organs was lacerated) that led to the boy's death. This was a structured event involving trained riders and handlers, not a wild event, and it still ended in tragedy. – user11394 Feb 17 '15 at 4:01
  • @CreationEdge - so sad. – anongoodnurse Feb 17 '15 at 6:36
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    I think you should put that graphic picture back in the answer. It is needed to remind people how bad things can get. Never mind the downvotes. – Aquarius_Girl Sep 22 '15 at 15:29

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