Self-Efficacy: Allowing Children to Take Risks That Matter

Categories: Misc

Kid on Bike Photographer: Paul Sableman

At Darkness to Light, we’re in the business of preparing adults to shelter children from sexual abuse. But daily we also remember and embrace that we exist under a much wider tent of child wellbeing, which takes so many forms:

  • Physical wellbeing – like nutrition and fitness
  • Social wellbeing – like community connectedness, social support, and especially family resilience
  • Economic wellbeing – like access to housing, material resources, and quality education
  • Quality of life – like having a safe place to play, and activities that create happiness and growth
  • Personal rights – like freedom from extreme trauma of varying sorts

We know that protection from sexual abuse is simply one tent pole under the canopy of wellbeing – and we hold down that one down expertly. And in that role, we call particular attention to the dangers of childhood and how to mitigate them. Yes freedom from danger is fundamental to a child’s wellbeing. But there is so much more to a happy and healthy childhood.

Recently this article circulated around the office and it really captured our interest. The article is entitled, “Why Do We Judge Parents for Putting Kids at Perceived – But Unreal – Risk?” In short, the researchers featured in the article found that as a culture we’ve been through a radical, extremely rapid, and probably unintentional social change when it comes to leaving children ‘unattended.’  The article opens like this:

“Many parents who grew up playing outdoors with friends, walking alone to the park or to school, and enjoying other moments of independent play are now raising children in a world with very different norms.

In the United States today, leaving children unsupervised is grounds for moral outrage and can lead to criminal charges.

What’s changed?”

Many of us would answer that question by saying that what was safe in the past may be unsafe today, and so children are genuinely in greater danger. But the author points out that, “…for the most part, the data don’t support this. Statistics from the National Crime Victimization Survey, for example, suggest that violent crime rates have decreased since the 1970s (and not only when it comes to children….).” And with reasonable certainty we know that even child sexual abuse rates have decreased in the last decade or two.

Instead of actual risk, the researchers believe that something called ‘the availability heuristic’ has played a significant role in the social change. The way it works is this: The easier it is for you to think of an example of something happening, the more frequently you think that thing happens. Take that in for a moment.  When you can easily think of an example of danger to a child, you think that danger happens frequently.

“Take the example of child abduction by strangers. It’s actually incredibly rare. But when it occasionally happens, it is covered on the news 24/7. Intellectually, we know these are rare events, but they really scare us. It’s as if we’re seeing people we know get abducted and murdered, or sold into the sex trade or whatever, all the time. So we hugely overestimate the actual risk of that happening.”

The researchers show that in the wake of this perceived increased danger to children, the social norm against leaving children alone has emerged. And because the norm has changed, we have become remarkably judgmental of parents who leave their children unattended. Parents then, knowing this judgment is out there, and probably having ingested ‘the availability heuristic’ as well, are more and more reluctant to leave their children unsupervised.

The article has a tremendous depth and interest that I will not cover here, and I highly recommend it. What I want to talk about is the loss of self-efficacy in children that is potentially caused by this shift in social norms.

It pains me beyond description to think that as awareness of the prevalence of child sexual abuse grows in our culture, an unintended byproduct could be the loss of self-efficacy in children. Self-efficacy in children is the very reason I got into the business of prevention in the first place! In fact, child sexual abuse itself can cause a loss of self-efficacy. To think that the solution (growing awareness of CSA) could have the unintended consequence of shrinking self-efficacy is unacceptable to me.

Let’s unpack it.

At its core, self-efficacy is about self-esteem. It is a person’s belief in his or her own ability to succeed in a particular situation. Self-efficacy has less to do with concrete preparation for a task and more about one’s feelings about oneself as inherently capable. It is a core belief in having the power to achieve one’s personal goals by one’s own actions. People who have it are more motivated and have more full-engagement with their task. They will take multiple paths toward their goals. They relate to obstacles as challenges. They persist even in times of difficulty. People with self-efficacy believe that in the end they will be successful. They’ve got moxie.

And here’s the thing. Much of our self-efficacy is developed during childhood. And what does that have to do with being left ‘unattended’?

Children who are rarely left alone generally have less opportunity to act independently, to solve problems with the perception that they’ve done so through their own creativity, to develop a sense of self-generated empowerment. Children who are rarely left alone have less opportunity to take independent personal risks.

I asked some friends to tell me their top of mind memories of developmental, watershed moments for their children. Distinct times when their child grew. Here are their examples:

    • Getting the courage to knock on someone’s door on Halloween.


    • Walking into Pre-K on his own for the first time without crying.


    • My son was around 18 months and my Mother came to stay with him when I was traveling for work. She was older and had a very weak back. She as worried about picking him up to change his diapers because our changing table was quite high. He was a big toddler and quite dense in weight. When I got back from my trip my mother told me that my son knew she was worried and had figured out a solution. He got a diaper, handed it to her, and crawled on the bed. He said, “Don’t worry Grandma I can do this for you.” After that when I came home I never had to pick him up again to change his diapers.


    • Talking to the bully that had punched him in the face on the bus and eventually becoming friends with him. My son wanted to understand the bully and why he did what he did.


    • When she was 4 she dropped a Lego ship that I had built for her. It broke apart. It was complicated to put together – a few levels above her age range. I found a video on YouTube showing step by step how to rebuild it – and she did it entirely on her own.  


    • When (he) was in the fifth grade, he wanted a loft bed from Ikea. The bed was up high, his desk fit underneath. Ikea furniture comes with a set of instructions and a bunch of pieces and parts. While putting his bed together, he realized he had the wrong parts. He contacted Ikea himself, talked to the sales person, and requested the exchange. He packed up the wrong parts. All he needed was a driver to get to the store. We picked up the right parts, and he built his own bed (w/ some help from his dad). Discovering the issue, handling it himself, seeing the project to completion…quite gratifying for him. And very impressive to me and his dad!


    • My daughter joined the Cross Country team and stuck it out even though it was really hard and she didn’t excel at it. She had never been willing to stick with something she didn’t naturally excel at before. I noticed that after that, she had a better attitude about her homework and was willing to work at it harder. 


What do these milestone stories have in common? In each, the child took an independent personal risk. They did something they had never done before, independently. Yes, maybe they had support and coaching from someone nearby, but in that pivotal moment they had to step out on their own and act. A risk is an action we’ve never taken before that has an unknown outcome, but which once taken builds self-esteem and belief in oneself.  Taking personal risks builds self-efficacy. Taking risks during childhood are the building blocks of confidence and really, self-love.

No I am not advocating for child abandonment, leaving small children alone, or flinging our children to the wolves. But I am reminded about mindfulness and discernment. That our fears, often engendered by the media and others’ judgments, would not cause us to create conditions in which our children cannot act independently, take healthy risks, and grow.

And I am reminded of the 5 Steps to Protecting Our Children™.  Interestingly, none of them say, “don’t leave children unsupervised,” or “curtail a child’s opportunity for risk.”

They say:

      1. Learn the facts about sexual abuse.
      2. Minimize isolated one-on-one situations.
      3. Talk with children about our bodies, sex, and boundaries.
      4. Know the signs of sexual abuse.
      5. React responsibly to disclosure, suspicions, and inappropriate interactions.

In fact, child sexual abuse prevention is about creating self-efficacy in children. Because a child who is confident, who trusts herself, and who’s got moxie is often a safer child.

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Paula Sellars is Executive Vice President of Phoenix Possibilities Inc., a company that fosters social change and leadership through the skills of personal risk. Formerly a family therapist and cranio-sacral therapist, Paula specialized in family systems, adolescence, and trauma recovery. She designed and executed program content for an adolescent day treatment center, worked in supervisory capacities inpatient and outpatient psychiatric settings, and has worked extensively with families with sexual abuse dynamics. Paula is the author of Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children®, a child sexual abuse prevention Docutraining® that uses consciousness training to effect behavior change. As a consciousness trainer with Phoenix Possibilities, Paula teaches the Cliff Jumping® Program and other leadership development programs for individuals, couples, and organizational groups. As a social change agent, she weaves her knowledge of the Enneagram, Spiral Dynamics and the Cliff Jumping Program to move communities to action. She is also a Oneness Blessing Giver through Oneness University in Chennai, India. Paula inspires vitality, spiritual connection, integrity and personal fulfillment.


Header photo via Paul Sableman on Flikr.


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