There’s No Risk-Free Childhood

The following is an essay by my friend Kayt Sukel. I really needed to read this today. We’re constantly weighing the risks as parents, whether that’s traveling with little ones, letting them figure things out on their own, or even as simple as deciding if a school is the right fit. Kayt is a brilliant writer and her new book The Art of Risk is one of my favorite reads of 2016.

The orthopedic surgeon used his pen to highlight the damage to my son’s ankle on the X-ray. There was no need, really—you couldn’t miss the breaks. Chet’s delicate bones, snapped during a sledding accident, looked a bit like the broken twigs one puts down for campfire kindling. As the doctor explained the long road of rehabilitation ahead of us—surgeries, pins, casts, and physical therapy—Chet remained quiet. It was only after the doctor left the room that he finally spoke.

“Mom, sledding was a bad idea,” he said, his voice sounding deeper and more mature than his 9 years. “We shouldn’t have gone. Life is dangerous.”

As I looked down at his ankle, still crooked at an uncanny angle despite his thick splint, I couldn’t disagree. And I felt guilty. Unbearably guilty.

I’ve never been a person who has shied away from adventure. And while other Moms might have scaled back on risk-taking once they had kids, I always took my son along for the ride. I started traveling internationally with Chet when he was in diapers, exploring Europe and the Middle East with him strapped to my back. And in the years since, he had hiked the red rocks of Petra, ziplined across jungle canopies, skied majestic peaks, snorkeled with hammerheads, and jumped off cliffs—usually to the sound of my applause. Many had criticized me for encouraging such endeavors. They told me I was tempting fate—and not even my own, the fate of the small being I should be protecting at all costs. They said it was only a matter of time before something bad happened. And now Chet had gotten hurt sledding, the kind of mundane activity that even your most risk-averse kid safely manages each winter. His accident felt like some kind of cosmic warning. Maybe I should have been exercising better judgment.

A few weeks after his first surgery, sporting a new Dr. Seuss-like cast, Chet attempted to scale steps for the first time without warning. Watching him slowly ascend the first couple steps, I felt myself panic. He was still pretty wobbly on his crutches. What if he fell? What if he re-injured his ankle? I was about to stop him, to protect him from potential folly, but one look at his face made me hold my tongue.

The grim determination there reminded me of a trip he and I took to the Galapagos Islands a few years earlier. It was a hard trip—for both of us. There were regular seasickness-inducing boat rides between the islands, arduous hikes, and a serious lack of luxury (not to mention hot water) at the variety of places we stayed. Chet was attacked by some kind of indigenous ant which made his ears swell up to cartoon-like proportions. By the end of our trip, we were both dirty and exhausted. I questioned whether I had done the right thing bringing him along for this particular ride.

But on our last day, we were offered the opportunity to try surfing for the first time. Even though the waves were calm by native standards, we were both taking a beating, getting knocked off our boards by even the smallest swells. I was ready to cut the lesson short, predicting a meltdown from an overtired, overwrought boy at any moment. But just as I decided to tell our guide we were done, I saw Chet paddling back out for another swell. He wanted to keep trying. He was taking a risk—and he was determined to see it through. And eventually, he managed to successfully—excitedly!—pop up on his board and ride a wave all the way to shore.

I can’t deny my critics (or even the words of my own son): life can be dangerous. There is uncertainty, and sometimes danger, lurking around the corner. Often, as we learned, where you least expect it—and that’s when your surfing, sledding, or just heading out your front door. But joy, wonder, and opportunity also lie in wait. Not to mention learning important skills like emotional regulation, problem solving, and knowing his limits. I don’t want my son to miss out on those things because he’s scared. Or worse, because I am.

I could have focused on keeping Chet safe as he grew up, wrapping his life in as much proverbial bubble wrap as I could find. I could have stopped him from sledding that terrible day—just as I could have cut his surfing lesson short in the Galapagos. And I certainly could have stopped him from going up those steps—or, at the very least, hovered close by to catch him if he fell. I could have. But it wouldn’t have felt right. To do so would eventually have crippled him, even more than that blasted broken ankle. He’s growing up. And he needs to learn to do, to learn, to explore, and to risk—and, yes, to deal with the consequences of his decisions, even if they end up requiring crutches. I had to let go. And I had to let him try.

Which, when you think about it, is the only thing a parent can really do as a child grows up and starts taking risks of his own. And that’s whether you’re at home, or exploring further afield.

Kayt Sukel is the author of The Art of Risk and This is Your Brain on Sex.

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