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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.