My friend and fellow blogger Lenore Skeanzy, whose wonderful blog is Free Range Kids, has been quoting Mark Twain on the risks of riding trains in 1871. It’s fascinating and entertaining reading.
Twain was talking about the low statistical probability of being killed in a train wreck, though at the time conventional wisdom within the country was that train travel should be avoided as unsafe. Twain’s point was that despite the risk, the literal chances of being hurt or killed in a train wreck were very low.
Today, we know that your chances of being killed in an airline crash are statistically less than a car crash. Still more people fear flying than driving. This is in part because when we drive we are in more control and feel that that shields us. As much as we might understand physics and engineering, part of our brains has not evolved enough to accept that hurtling through the sky, six miles above the ground in a metal tube is even possible—let alone safe. Of course, there’s risk, but for most people who fly, it is acceptable risk. If planes fell out of the sky every day, it would be a different story. I once sat next to a mechanical engineer on a flight out of Denver who was absolutely panicked about flying. Even he knew his fear didn’t make sense, but it was just that: an irrational fear.
Now, fear is not always bad. It’s our built-in early warning system. The problem is that it gets ugly and unmanageable where fear meets ego. In other words, parents who read about terrible tragedies about children instantly project themselves into it. As a result, kids are being raised to be afraid of their environments, cautious about anything they don’t know and, in too many cases, risk averse. We have gone from a country that relied on its communities and the people within them to provide support, context and stability to isolated pockets of individuals fearful of anyone and anything we don’t know.
I was recently at an event with many people I didn’t know personally, but who were all there for the same reason and under the same organization. One would think that the presumption of safety within this group would apply. Instead, when a 5-year-old girl walked over to me to proudly show me the art project she’d made, her mother, having looked away for a moment, raced over, grabbed her daughter and told her she was “very bad” for talking to people she didn’t know, and instructed me not to talk to her child. Not surprisingly, her daughter looked like she was on the brink of tears. This drama played out over about 90 seconds, and I wasn’t even an active participant. In fact, I was irrelevant, and I never said a word. It was the mother’s fear that drove the drama, and it overwhelmed her judgment and the facts.
Sadly, “drama” is the operative word here, and I sat there wondering what this lovely little girl’s experience was going to be as she grew up if this was her daily experience. If every unknown situation is catastrophic and dangerous, how will this little girl learn to make distinctions between situations for herself when mom isn’t on the scene?
Children need age-appropriate risk at all stages of their lives. How else do they know what they’re capable of? It’s a huge risk to pull oneself up and start walking. It’s a risk to go to nursery school and suddenly be with other kids. It’s a risk to ride a bike, or a skateboard. It’s a risk to take the SATs. Any activity, any choice where the outcome is unknown is a risk. And risks are life threatening to a greater or lesser degree. Teaching children to take appropriate risks is how we help them to grow. And, most importantly they need to fail. I love watching kids skateboard because, with no parental authority around, they know they won’t hit each trick, but I love the process as failure ultimately leads to success, and success can become mastery. Children need this process.
Of course common sense applies. But shutting ourselves into egocentric cocoons of fear without acknowledging reality is not the answer. Every success has its genesis in one thing: a calculated risk. Striking the balance between rationality and risk is one of the most valuable gifts we can give our kids.