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Taking risks: Students say it’s how they learn their limits

For some students, “taking a risk” means signing up for a semester abroad, being the only male in a women’s studies course, or running for the homecoming court. For others, risk-taking means accepting a beer-guzzling challenge, trying not to get caught while smoking a joint in the residence hall, or having sex with someone they’ve just met.

The majority of college students take risks. In fact, student development professionals—and students themselves—say experimentation and risk-taking are not only a normal part of college life, but also a necessary part of growing up. By engaging in new behaviors, students learn their limits, practice decision making, and discover their identity.

Jodi Dworkin of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Social Sciences has talked to college students about why they take risks and asked them what part they think parents should play in monitoring a student’s behavior during the college years.

“Most students experiment when they’re in college,” Dworkin said, “but very few are off the charts in terms of dangerous behaviors. When you look at what else they’re doing, they’re still what we would consider to be good students. They’re doing well academically, they’re going to class, they have goals.”

In fact, Dworkin said, students consider their behaviors carefully and set up their environment so that they feel justified in taking risks. “They’ll say, ‘Sure, I had way too much to drink, but I didn’t drive drunk, and I didn’t walk home alone. It isn’t like I was being completely irresponsible.’”

Students regard some of their behaviors as normal for college, Dworkin said. “Students might say that everyone drinks when they’re in college, or this is a time in their lives when they can be irresponsible. They say they will quit when they graduate.”

Parents’ role

Students want the freedom that comes from living away from home, and they insist on the right to make their own choices. At the same time, though, they trust that their parents will continue to monitor their behavior and let them know if they’re headed for serious trouble. Parents should intervene, students told Dworkin, if a behavior would cause major physical or emotional harm or if it would interfere with their goals for the future.

When Dworkin asked students how they think parents should go about monitoring behaviors during the college years, they had some specific suggestions.

  • Parents need to trust their child’s judgment. They should allow—even encourage—their student to make decisions.
  • Parents should regard past behaviors as indicators of future choices. Students who have made good decisions in the past will continue to make good decisions.
  • Parents can advise and suggest, students said, “but don’t be offended if I don’t take your suggestions.”
  • They should consider the whole picture. If students are partying heavily on the weekend, but their grades are good, and if they’re making progress toward their future goals, they are probably all right, the students said. One failed test is not serious; several failed classes indicate a problem.
  • Students count on their parents to communicate regularly and watch for cues. Phone calls, e-mails, and in-person contact can reveal significant changes. 

Follow up on things your child revealed during your last interaction, look for big changes in your child’s mood or behavior, listen closely to the tone of their voice, monitor their grades, and ask about their friends and extracurricular activities, they said.

College students are learning how to make good decisions, and they are beginning to take control of their lives. They believe they need to take some risks, socially and academically. They told Dworkin that a strong relationship with their parents provides guidance and grounding as they weigh the difference between healthy experimentation and dangerous behaviors.

If parents can trust their children to make responsible decisions, one student told Dworkin, they will respond by living up to their parents’ expectations. “I think that’s a really satisfying feeling to know that your parents don’t question what you’re doing,” he said. “I think it’s a really empowering idea.”

Jodi Dworkin is a researcher in the Department of Family Social Sciences in the College of Human Ecology. Her research paper is titled, “Parenting College Students: Students’ Perspectives.”