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News Flash: Children Don’t Understand Danger

on the roadYesterday afternoon, my daughter and I were walking back home from an errand when I noticed a young teenage boy laying in the middle of the road down the street. I saw a car coming up the hill in his direction, and then – thank God – he got up and scurried to the side of the road before getting hit. “Is this kid really playing chicken in New. York. City?” I thought. Then, being the mother-to-all-children-I-see that I am, I told my daughter we’d have to walk down the block and tell the group of kids gathered not to lay down in traffic.

“I came down here to tell you guys not to play chicken in the street. Don’t lay down in traffic. You seriously could be killed. If you get run over, you will probably be killed and your mother would be devastated if you died,” I said with concern, not admonishment. The boy who laid down in the road was just wide-eyed and nodding at everything I said, and the young teenage girls watching chimed in, “We’re not doing it! It’s just them. I told them to come play something else.”

“Yeah, go play something fun,” I said. Then I headed back up the hill, my daughter’s hand in mine. As soon as we were out of earshot, I said, “Please don’t ever do anything reckless like that.”

“Oh, I won’t. I would never,” she replied in disbelief. For whatever reason, my daughter seems to have a pretty solid grasp on safety issues. That may be because I am constantly reminding her to look both ways before crossing the street, telling her not to cross against the light in New York City, and sharing stories about friends who have been hurt in traffic accidents. Not in a scary way, of course, but in a way that is – thankfully – causing her to take road safety seriously.

That’s something that’s hard for kids to do, apparently. According to a new study, “that may be because their brains just aren’t properly processing the odds that they’ll break an arm or be in a car crash.”

It may not be news to you that teenagers tend to engage in risky behavior due to their feelings of invincibility, but what is interesting about this study is that researchers discovered why children age 9 and up have trouble understanding the dangers inherent in risky behavior. “Researchers at University College London asked 59 young people, ages 9 to 26, to guess the odds that particular bad things would happen to them,” NPR reports. “The list of 40 unfortunate events ranged from being seriously injured in a car crash to getting lice.” The report continues:

After they guessed, they were told the real odds of those bad things …. After being told the real risk, the participants were asked to guess the odds once again. They were all good at remembering the actual risk if it wasn’t as bad as they’d originally thought. But the younger the participant, the worse they were at recalling the risks when they were worse than they had first thought.

Tali Sharot, a psychologist who studies the neuroscience behind decision-making at University College London and an author of the study, says it’s because their brains just couldn’t remember the information. “All humans tend to discount bad news while expecting things to work out,” NPR says. “This study suggests that the ability to incorporate risks into decision-making is something it takes years to learn.”

I hope that doesn’t mean I’ll see a 13-year-old boy laying in the road again tonight. But if so, I’ll remind him again of the dangers associated with that kind of behavior. After all, one way to remember something is through repetition!

Photo credit: iStock

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