AS THE PARENT OF A 14-YEAR-OLD SON AND A 2-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER, I spend a lot of time thinking about risks. Liam says he expects to take the Red Line to school in the fall and that he wants to shoot his grandfather’s guns when he visits Kentucky soon. Ruby fights when I hold her hand crossing the street and cries “Self!” when I try to steady her at the top of the twisty slide. It is remarkable how often my heart is in my throat.
But I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared than I was this summer, standing with Liam at the top of a cliff in Italy. Every few years we go on a big hiking trip, and this time we were trying an “iron way,” paths in the Dolomite range that have steel cables bolted into the rock face. The cables offer a secure handhold while your feet seek purchase on the narrow paths. The system allows access to trails only mountaineers could otherwise negotiate.
A steel cable led over the precipice before us, and we wore carabiners that clipped onto it that would arrest our fall if we slipped. But this did not look like the beginner’s trail we expected when we rented our gear a day earlier. The wall was too steep to see the bottom of the chasm hundreds of feet below us. The ledges we were to depend on were little more than toeholds. We’re avid hikers, but we’d never done anything like this before. We could easily turn back — as Liam’s father, I thought maybe we should turn back.
How much risk we should expose our kids to is one of the toughest decisions parents make. The news reminds us of the dangers of sexual predation, or being swept out to sea, or the possibility of a car crash. I also worry about my toddler choking on a grape or splitting her lip in a fall, and my teenager playing violent video games or accepting a cigarette in the schoolyard.
Yet I wonder if parents have gone a little overboard. Helmets before sledding, no peanut butter before 2, online courses about the dangers of concussions before joining the high school swim team — we’re obsessed with heading off risks before our children can take them. Raising a daredevil is probably not the right move — and maybe the Connecticut parents who let their 5-year-old swim with sharks went too far — but I don’t think shielding them from everything is right either.
As parents, it’s easy to forget that risks can also have payoffs. As adults, we all take chances, whether we’re investing in the stock market for retirement or commuting on busy highways to work. And one thing I want my children to learn is how to decide when a risk is worth it — one way to do that is to take them.
Liam and I didn’t turn back in Italy. We headed down the cliff, methodically clipping our carabiners onto the steel cable, moving down a few feet, and shifting onto the next cable. I kept a watchful eye on Liam. About halfway, I heard him talking to himself, quietly: “One step at a time”; “OK, move the clip onto the next cable”; “Don’t look down.” The real risk, I realized, was panic, and Liam was managing his own fear, reducing the risk we were taking. He made me very proud.
The climb reminded me that not all risks are alike. Drinking Big Gulps and smoking cigarettes offer almost nothing to be gained, so they’re off-limits to Liam. But getting down that cliff demanded self-reliance and courage, traits impossible to engender under a security blanket, and I think Liam is more likely to be self-reliant and courageous in the future.
So when Liam heads off to the Red Line in August, or when Ruby next demands to climb to the top of the slide by herself,
I will have to remember that my job is not just to keep my children safe. It’s also to teach them to make good judgments about what is dangerous.
Of course, that doesn’t mean my heart won’t be in my throat the whole time.
Kent Greenfield is a professor at Boston College Law School and the author of The Myth of Choice. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.