What We Talk About When We Talk About Risk

My most recent post, “Teenagers and Risk: lessons from whitewater paddling,” is an article that appeared in AMC Outdoors Online, a monthly e-newsletter of the Appalachian Mountain Club. I’ve written about risk here before (“You might fall, you could die: teaching about risk”) and will again, I’m sure. “Risk” touches on a surprising number of topics that are important to families, children, and the outdoors.

Anxiety about risk has led some parents, schools, and communities to attempt to remove all risk from childhood, or so it can appear. Fear that children might hurt themselves leads to the disappearance of swing sets from playgrounds and rope swings from swimming holes. (The fear at work here may well be the fear of lawsuits.) The same anxiety about injury, compounded by the darker fear of “stranger danger,” leads parents to tell children not to go into the woods alone or down the street or across town.

I’ve heard risk talked about another way. I count myself among those who came of age backpacking, skiing, paddling, climbing, and mountaineering. The stories we tell each other often have to do with risk — risk taken, risk successfully managed (or not), and the lessons we’ve learned from taking risks. Many of us have eagerly introduced our children to the same risk-taking activities, knowing how, for us, they taught resourcefulness and responsibility and helped create a sense of discovery, confidence, pride, and, yes, joy. I know 10-year-olds who climb at a higher level than I ever have as an adult, and young skiers and snowboarders who pop 360-degree turns like pros. But I sometimes have the uncomfortable feeling that while we celebrate the rewards, we dodge talking about the risks.

It seems to me that we should seek a balance between these two impulses. The concern for safety that reins in kids’ behavior is the same concern that has (wisely) pushed for seatbelt laws and bike helmets. That same concern has led to real change in what we think and do about skin cancer and toxins in the environment, to take just a few examples. The good old days — in terms of risk and safety and raising healthy, independent children — were good only in some ways.

Once again, it’s Virgil who has me thinking about these things. This week we’re staying at a family camp on a lake in New Hampshire. Our cabin is up a rocky wooded slope from the shore. On our first day here, Virgil fell off one of the granite boulders — not far, but in just the right way to break his arm. No swimming for him this week, or paddling, or biking. (Maybe some hiking, says Daddy.)

I saw the boulder where Virgil was playing. He wasn’t doing anything I would have considered inappropriate or too risky. I’m glad he had the room to be exploring and discovering his body and the natural world around him. If he learns from the experience, if he gradually develops his own judgment and sense of how to assess and manage the risks he takes, if he can do those things without losing his love of exploration and discovery, a broken bone will have been a small cost along the way.

"The world isn’t risk-free. You want to encourage kids to take risks that are good risks. And that means being prepared for them to come back sometimes with bruises."— Bruce Lessels, whitewater instructor and co-author of the AMC guidebook, Paddling with Kids

“Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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