You might fall, you could die: teaching about risk

I ran into a friend (another outdoorsy parent) earlier this week. We exchanged news of our summer so far — trying to catch this year’s rare sunny days, family visits, camps, and on my end, our camping trip, which I wrote about in my July 1 post. I told her about hiking, waterfalls, our encounters with wildlife. And I told her about teaching the children how to climb. Just a little, I said; the basics, unroped.

When she asked me what I taught them, I told her that I showed them how to stand on what seems like nothing, how to be efficient with their strength on vertical terrain. She asked more questions, and I warmed to my subject. It’s been a long time since I’ve used a climber’s vocabulary. I talked about dihedrals and open books, laybacks and barn-doors, flakes and dishes. And cracks, which climbers size in gradations, much like drill bits or wrenches: finger, thin hand, hand, fist, the aptly named squeeze chimney and its wider relations.

Then she asked me, Did you teach them about risk? Her question stopped me. Not because I hadn’t thought about the risk of climbing, but because I’ve thought about it so much.

The short answer, which I gave her, is Yes. Yes, I told them that climbing is dangerous. I told them that a fall, even from only a few feet up, can injure or even kill, and that climbing down is often harder than climbing up. I insisted, I said to my friend, that they reverse their moves and spot each other, and told them they couldn’t climb anything steep without getting me first.

I didn’t tell her that my heart crowded my mouth and I could barely breathe the first few times their feet left the ground, even though I was right there to spot them. Or the terror I felt one afternoon when I followed a sixth sense, rounded a corner, and came upon Virgil, eight feet up a granite slab and shaking, mere moments from losing his grip and falling. Never mind that he’d ignored all my safety advice. Right then, I felt that I had handed my child a loaded gun and told him to go play with it.

Most of the time, I think of myself as occupying a middle ground on risk. I want my children to learn how to stretch their limits — to take risks — and I want them to be safe. I don’t want them to avoid risk and I don’t want them to be cavalier about it. I recently spoke about risk with Bruce Lessels, who is an AMC author, a former national-team whitewater kayaker, a parent and a teacher. “The world isn’t risk-free,” he reminded me. He believes we should teach children how to manage risk, and that we risk not preparing our children for life if we try to keep them from it.

Fundamentally, I agree with Bruce. But incidents like the one with Virgil on the rock remind me that teaching children to take risks is itself a risky business. After the fact, I realized that I’d given Virgil the same instruction as his much older sister and her friend. At 11, Ursula and Kirsten had been able to gauge what rocks they could climb safely; at 6, Virgil couldn’t. He’d followed the low-angle slab and gotten stuck where the angle steepened.

Virgil and I were both lucky to get another chance to think about risk. After I got him back down to level ground, and after I hugged him, hard, I told him, No climbing at all without me, none.

“Got it,” he said. Me, too.

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