Refresh Your Life

Month: February 2016

Why We Risk It: Teaching Kids About Risk Management

This is the second in a two-part series about risk. To read the first installment about our family history with risk, click here

These days, I try not to think too much about risk.

This probably sounds irresponsible and flippant so I should explain that I have spent an enormous amount of time assessing risk in a professional capacity and reflecting on its implications on my personal life. It is not in spite of but rather because of this, that I try not to think too much about risk. Let me explain.

Sunsets at sea were a constant reward for our travels.

Sunsets at sea were a constant reward for our travels.

After college, I decided to pursue some professional sailing certifications. I trained first in the UK and then Australia, and ultimately I achieved a few handy licenses that got me a job as a captain and sailing instructor in the British Virgin Islands. It wasn’t long after that that I met The Captain and began teaching study abroad programs with him on larger sailboats. Later, once we moved back to the states, I became the director of several youth sailing programs. This is all a roundabout way of saying I worked as an experiential educator for a long time.

In running all of these sailing programs for young people ranging from 8-year olds bobbing around in tiny dinghies to college students crossing oceans on 100-ft sailing schooners, it was a regular part of my job to professionally assess risk at every moment and make split-second decisions that weighed risk against experience.

Is this worth it, I would ask myself. Is the risk small enough and the experience great enough to justify what I’m about to do? 

Is the relatively minuscule risk of a serious accident worth the immensely beautiful reward of crossing an ocean under the power of sails, of standing watch under a blanket of stars that is reflected back by the endless sea, of arriving safely to a new continent and knowing that it was nothing but you and mother nature that got you there?

When the risk is relatively small and the reward potentially enormous, the answer is often yes, it’s worth it. For remember, there is always a risk even if just in falling to sleep each night. Even in waking. In crossing the road. In getting behind the wheel. Everyone dies. It is such a delicate balance between risk and experience.

You can get hurt doing anything. You can get hurt doing nothing.

So how can I justify this balance, how can I justify such a delicate juggling act when I’m bringing my kids along?

This brings me to risk management.

Headlamps on for some pj-clad explorations after dark.

Headlamps on for some pajama-clad explorations after dark.

Without thinking about it, we practice risk management every day. We learn to recognize real, significant risks and take reasonable steps to minimize them. At the most basic level this includes things like helmets on bikes and life jackets on boats. It means affixing lights to my children when we’re in the woods after dark. It means a latch on the backyard gate that’s out of their reach.

It does not mean staying home all the time. It does not mean keeping both feet firmly planted on dry land all the time. It does not mean watching life pass us by while we stand still.

For the record, both of these kids stuck the landing without incident.

For the record, both of these kids stuck the landing without incident.

The single most important element of risk management when kids are  involved is education. I let my kids push their own limits. I let them experience failure. I am often the parent at the playground whose child climbs too high and I’m okay with that. I would rather my kid come home with a skinned knee and bruised elbows, having learned something about his own physical limitations. I would rather my kids push the limits and experience failure in a relatively safe environment. Kids learn through experience, and failures including injuries are a part of that.

My kids are young enough now that they are nearly always within my sight. But someday they won’t be and before they’re out there alone, I want them to already know and have experienced real risks with me alongside.

We spend an enormous amount of time talking with them in truthful terms about the risks that exist in their environment. We live across the street from the town boat ramp and marina, where the marsh meets the river and leads to the sea. My boys love to stomp on icy puddles and to them, the river right now looks like the mother of all icy puddles. My worst fear is one of them somehow escaping my sight and getting out on that ice. It looks thick but it’s salty and mushy and moving. So we talk ALL THE TIME about the risks of the river.

Surveying the icy river.

Surveying the icy river.

It doesn’t matter if you’re just going to get a ball you dropped or you’re just going to have a better look at the ducks. 

You stay away from the river because the banks are slippery and the ice is dangerous. 

You keep your feet on the gravel road.

You could fall in. 

It would be too cold to swim. 

You wouldn’t be able to keep your head above the water, and Mommy and Daddy would have a very hard time getting you out.      

We aren’t purposely trying to scare them, but it does scare them a little bit and that’s not a bad thing. It’s perfectly fine to have a healthy respect for nature. It’s perfectly fine to be a little scared. I’m glad that my boys have spent enough time outdoors to know that we are tiny in this big, big world. We don’t own this place. It’s bigger than us and we have to respect that.

Teaching our kids to recognize the risks in their environment is not the same as invoking fear of the outdoors. It’s empowering them to protect themselves and others, and to make better decisions when we’re not around to guide them. 

Pushing the limits at the skate park is just another part of learning what our bodies are capable of doing.

Pushing the limits at the skate park is just another part of learning what our bodies are capable of doing.

We talk openly with the boys about dangerous weather conditions. On days when it snows wet and hard all day and the trees hang low under the weight, we tell them that we will walk in the hay fields where we will be safe even if a tree falls. When it rains and then nightfall brings a deep freeze, we talk about how slippery the roads and the steps can be, and the boys help to spread sand along the walkway. When the sun beats down and we’re at the beach for six hours straight, we talk about taking breaks in the shade to cool off and drink lots of water.

I don’t want to raise kids who think that the world is their oyster. Kids who think they are larger than life and can take on just about anything. Kids who think they’re invincible and can conquer all.

No. I want to raise kids who know their place in the wild. Kids who respect the power of nature and recognize the delicate balance between risk and experience. I want to raise kids who are confident enough to ask for help or say no when something feels scary. I want to raise smart adventurers.

Junior conquers the playground.

Junior conquers the playground.

Why We Risk It: The Story of My Aunt Karin

This is the first in a two-part series about risk. Here, I reflect on our family history and the link between risk and adventure. Later, I’ll discuss risk management and how I justify exposing my children to risk.

Risk is a tricky thing. It’s embedded in everything we do, some things more than others of course, and it makes each choice we make a gamble. I think a lot about risk and risk management because I am an adventurer and I want my kids to be adventurers too. Adventure takes risk. Adventure takes bravery. Sometimes adventure takes all. 

Memories of Karin from a box in my attic.

Memories of Karin from a box in my attic.

Growing up, I found a kindred spirit in my Aunt Karin. She was a larger than life adventurer who sent postcards detailing her journeys up mountains and over glaciers. She built a wooden sailboat in her backyard. She gave me my first rock climbing harness. She took me on my first backpacking trip.

And when I was twelve, she died in an avalanche while cross country skiing not far from where she lived. It was 21 years ago today.

Just like that, one moment she was enjoying a wildly beautiful place and the next she wasn’t there anymore. She wasn’t anywhere. She was gone.

It was easy to wish she’d never gone skiing that day. We all wished she hadn’t. Skiing, especially in the back country, is a risk. We cried and swore and cursed the weather and the ski trip and her choice to get up and go that morning. It was so easy to hate that day and that trip. It was a tragedy in the non-cliche, purest sense of the word.

So why take that risk? 

She took it because my Aunt Karin was an adventurer. Though no one saw this particular accident coming, it didn’t come completely out of the blue. For adventure is inherently risky. Without risk there would be no adventure. So it was as though this could have happened any day on any adventure. It could have been any skiing trip. And if it wasn’t a skiing trip, it could have been rock climbing or hiking or sailing or just crossing the street at the wrong moment. There is risk in everything we do, even just getting out of bed.

It is hard to remember through a lens so tinted by grief, but to wish that she hadn’t gone skiing that day was to wish that she hadn’t gone skiing any day. Because something could have happened any day. There is risk in everything we do, especially adventure. 

To wish that she’d never gone skiing was to wish that she’d never pursued adventure. It was to wish that she led a different life and was a different person.

Was that what we wanted? Would she have wanted that?

Of course I can’t say one way or the other. Of course I wish there were no accident and there was no tragedy. I wish she were still here to spin yarns around a campfire. I wish I could send her links to my blog and share the pictures of the boys’ first winter camping experience. She would be so stoked about the adventures my boys are having. She would bring them on some of her own.

So yes, I wish that on that one day, she hadn’t gone skiing.

But I would never, not for a single second, wish that she was not the adventurer who inspired me. I think if she’d known that it would all end the way it did, I think she would have still chosen that life. I don’t mean that she was selfish or reckless (though I suppose she could have been; I don’t know, I was only twelve.) What I mean is that the life she lived was one of passion for the adventures that fueled her soul, an outlet of sorts that couldn’t be found elsewhere. 

Without adventure, without risk, she simply wouldn’t have been her. And would we have wanted anybody else?

Karin, my brother, and me taking a lunch break on a backpacking trip in the Rockies.

Karin, my brother, and me taking a lunch break on a backpacking trip in the Rockies.

Six Snow Day Activities That Aren’t Sledding or Snowmen

Winter is here and there’s snow in the forecast. Last winter, we got eight feet in just a month. It didn’t take long for the daily sledding and snowmen to grow a bit stale. Thankfully, that didn’t mean we had to be stuck inside for a full day of screen time. My kids thrive outside, where there’s plenty of space to explore and fresh air to tire them out. There are plenty of options for enjoying a snow day at home or around the neighborhood. Here are some of our favorites.

  1. Painting snow on the balcony at Nana and Poppy's house.

    Painting snow on the balcony at Nana and Poppy’s house.

    Painting snow. Mix several small bowls of warm water with a few drops of food coloring. Bring them outside and use paintbrushes to decorate the snow outside. You can paint fresh snow on the ground, snow sculptures that you’ve already created, or bowls and trays of snow that you’ve gathered. Alternatively, put your coloring solutions into spray or squeeze bottles to make a bigger masterpiece. We particularly like this on wet, slushy days because we can go outside to gather the snow into bowls, and then paint them on a covered porch or balcony for more protection.

  2. Frozen snow catcher!

    Frozen snow catcher!

    Make a frozen sun catcher. It’s a lot harder to find natural treasures in the snow, but go for a walk and gather what you can. We found some leaves, wild berries, seeds, and pine needles. Line a pie tin with plastic wrap and arrange your treasures in it. We added some cross sections of apples and lemons just for fun. Add water and place a length of string in the tray. This is how you’ll hang your sun catcher so make sure it is strong enough. If the string is floating on the water, place something on top of it so that it will freeze into the ice, not on top of it. Cover the tray and place it somewhere safe to freeze. After it’s frozen, bring it inside and run some warm water over the pie tin to help peel it off the plastic. Hang it someplace outside where you’ll enjoy seeing it everyday.

  3. Construction crew hard at work.

    Construction crew hard at work.

    Construction project. My kids like to have a task, so when I get out their trucks and shovels and tell them they need to clear a road through the snow, they get to work. The bonus is that this road can later double as a track for cars, foot races, or dog walks. Even through last year’s snowmageddon, the kids maintained a big shoveled loop around the backyard that allowed them to use their trucks and ride-on toys all winter long.

  4. Frozen sand castles!

    Frozen sand castles!

    Get out the sand toys. Beach toys are also great in the winter. If you live near a beach, the sand may be stiffened just enough by the ice that you can make some really cool frozen sand castles. But even if you don’t live near a beach, you can still use the sand molds right in the snow to create your own frozen world.

  5. Playgrounds are usually deserted when the white stuff falls.

    Playgrounds are usually deserted when the white stuff falls.

    Hit the playground. Just like summer toys, playgrounds tend to get forgotten once the snow starts to fall. In a light coating of snow, you can enjoy all the same playground toys without worrying about much of a crowd. In a heavier snowfall, bring your car scraper or a shovel to clear a path or go crazy down the slide into a fluffy pile of fresh snow. I’ve even seen some wild sled rides down the wider playground slides. Just make sure you wear a helmet if you’re getting crazy.

  6. Snow play in the playroom, always a hit.

    Snow play in the playroom, always a hit.

    Take it inside. Try as we might to spend all day outside, it’s just possible for the kids sometimes. When we’ve had it with outside snow play, we bring the snow inside. Spread a shower curtain or table cloth on the floor, fill some bowls, sensory trays, or tupperware up with snow and go at it. Or, even more fun – fill the bathtub with it. Your kids will likely relish the chance to use toys in the snow that normally never make it outside. They can build a track for cars and trucks, a cave for animals or a castle for kings and queens.

There are no doubt many snow days still ahead of us this winter. Don’t let the monotony get you down. Embrace some new snow day activities and they just might become your new tradition.


Winter Cabin Camping With Kids: Are You Willing to Pay the Price?

Late afternoon memories on the frozen pond.

Late afternoon memories on the frozen pond.

The sun is inching low towards the distant pine-specked ridge line and the boys are frolicking across the snowy ice, their shadows drifting almost as far as their laughter. They are taking turns on a plastic sled, towing one another and pretending to slip, sliding in long smooth streaks across the bumpy frozen pond. They stumble into each other and jostle tummy to tummy until one falls over, like slippery footed sumo wrestlers. In this moment they are best friends, cackling together through the thin winter air, extending hands to help each other up, arms easily draping over shoulders and mittens patting backs. The Captain and I clutch frosty cans in our own mittened fists, smiling easily as the sun soaks into our cheeks. This is why we did it. This is why we’re here. Moments like this are the reward for hard work, risk and discomfort. Moments like this are what we’ve been waiting for.

We have paid a price for this moment, and it was worth every bit. What price are you willing to pay?

It Will Be Dark

The cabin

The cabin.

It wasn’t like this at first. We arrived on Friday late in the afternoon, as a gentle snow was just settling in a bit heavier than forecast. The roads were slick and narrow, the woods dense and dark. We found our cabin tucked deep in the pines at the distant end of a winding road that didn’t seem like it led anywhere until we spotted the tiny sign hung crookedly on a tree. The boys, having been strapped into carseats for three hours, spilled out onto the fresh snow, sliding clumsily as they scooted their toy trucks around on their knees. The Captain set to work immediately, opening the cabin and working on a fire in the wood stove straight away. I carried load after load from the minivan to the cabin. We were racing against the sun.

The "kitchen"

The “kitchen”

But inside the cabin it was already dark. The cabin. It wasn’t quite what we had expected. It was tiny, smaller than our kitchen, smaller than the cabin in the pictures. Two sets of bunkbeds were kitty-cornered taking up most of the floor space. Across from them was an unfinished wooden slab, presumably a counter space of sorts, and then a small wobbly table with two even wobblier chairs. There was a thin chain hanging from the ceiling which we hung our lantern from, but it only cast a harsh light across the top of the cabin ceiling and somehow made it even harder to see in the shadowed spaces below. I took deep breaths. I told myself, this will be worth it.

It Will Be Dirty

Then there was the dirt. I’d come prepared with a broom and dust pan, paper towels, and cleaning spray. But this was a different kind of dirt. It was ground into the unfinished wood floor so deeply that there could have just as easily been no floor at all. It was a deep, deep dirt ground into everything. As snow was inevitably tracked across the floor, despite the admonitions to TAKE OFF YOUR BOOTS, it turned to mud and smeared easily and everywhere. It was filthy and beyond cleanable. I took deep breaths. I told myself, this will be worth it.

The "bedrooms"

The “bedrooms”

After the Captain got the fire going and the camping stove set up, he brought the boys for a wander in the waining daylight so I could set up beds and start cooking dinner. There was no floor space for Little Bear’s pack ’n play. At two and a half, he’s almost ready for a big bed, but with the whole family sharing 100 square feet, this was definitely not the night to try it so I flipped a mattress on its side and crammed the crib onto a lower bunk, leaving about eight inches of clearance for the little guy to acrobatically contort himself into a front dive/flip each time he wanted in or out.

I was thankful I’d cooked the chili at home before we left, and only needed to heat it on the stove. Soon the boys tumbled into the cabin all snow and rosy cheeks, tired and hungry. Junior furrowed his brow as he looked up. “You should have chosen another cabin that wasn’t all haunted spiderwebs, Mama.” I took deep breaths. I told myself, this will be worth it.

Just When You Start to Relax, Something Will Go Wrong

After dinner, we tucked a pair of dirty exhausted boys into their sleeping bags and dimmed the lantern. The Captain and I sat at the table, whispering and passing a bottle of something strong by the flickering light of the wood stove. The cabin was finally warm and as our drinks seeped in, so were we. I thought this might be the moment when it was worth it. It thought we were in the clear. And then we saw a mouse scurry over to a chocolate bar and start digging in. Back to work, we packed everything into rubbermaid bins and tupperware. We fell asleep late, with chills on our shoulders as we imagined the mouse running across the foot of our sleeping bags as we slept. I tossed and turned for an hour and fell into a restless sleep, broken by a winter’s wind that snuck between the cabin’s logs and crept into my sleeping bag.

Don’t Lose Hope; A New Day Will Dawn. 

The advantage to a dark cabin is that dawn holds off just a little longer. We all slept past six, almost until seven, with the exception of a few wakings to feed the stove during the night. The boys woke excited and we all clamored out of bed, us for hot coffee and them for mugs of warm milk. I made sausage and potatoes and eggs on the wood stove. We filled our stomachs and then geared up.

DSC_0368 DSC_0394  DSC_0484DSC_0384Outside the new snow left everything fresh. We walked up the road to scout sledding hills, then browsed the trail map and headed through the woods to the frozen pond. Junior, having had a cold during the week, was not his usual self but he perked up after a snack by the pond and the promise of a chance to walk on the ice. Later, there was sledding and a chance to use his new “monster” snow shoes. (Totally nonfunctional as snow shoes, by the way. But fun for him nonetheless.)

After a morning outside, the boys devoured some grilled cheese sandwiches and then fell into a deep, long nap. While they napped, we lit a fire in the fire pit outside and swapped big talk about the adventures we’d have here if the boys were a little older.

DSC_0413 DSC_0548 DSC_0430When giggles and squeals began to drift out from the cabin, we got the boys dressed again and headed back for a walk around the frozen pond. This time we found beaver dens and watched the sun descend.

DSC_0543  DSC_0643Later we stoked the fire and the boys perched on the edge of the cooler, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows. We poked at the hot coals and watched the stars come out. Pudgy sun-kissed cheeks, smeared with grease and sugar, shimmered in the firelight. It was still early but the fresh air made their eyelids heavy. They leaned gently on one another.

Now we knew why we’d come here in the first place.

The Price You Paid Will Be Worth It

We aren’t the sort of people who routinely drop big money on vacations or experiences. In fact, we tend to do things on a pretty tight budget. Our cabin rental was a negligible expense, probably only marginally more than the gas we’d spent getting there.

The real price we pay for experiences like this with our kids is the hardship. It is not always comfortable. It is not easy. If comfort and ease are your goal, it’s definitely better to stay home.

Adventures are risky. They are hard. They are work.

The packing alone was hours of planning and preparation. There were hours more spent in the car. It was dark. It was dirty. For two nights, we shared our space with a mouse.

But then there was this. And years later when we laugh about the dark, and the dirt and the mouse, it will be this that we remember most.

Childhood is short. Let’s pay the price to fill it with moments like this.


Roasting hot dogs as the sun goes down.


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