It starts with their very first breaths. We wrap them in layers of blankets, stuff them into backward-facing car seats, and cushion the bars of their cribs with tie-on bumpers. We line the shopping carts with tiny, rounded quilts complete with leg holes. There are germs on those carts, we say. I won’t have my precious baby gumming a handle touched by some contaminated member of the populace! We use hand sanitizer. Lots of it. We wipe down baby changing stations before we roll out baby changing pads, then lay our children down and strap them securely. We buckle them into Bumbo seats and bouncy seats and swings and high chairs. We cover every outlet, affix rounded pieces of plastic to every sharp corner. We warm, yes warm, the wipes that will touch our babies’ filthy bottoms so they don’t experience the shock of cold cotton against their skin.
You’d think we’d ease up when their immune systems had strengthened a bit and they weren’t wobbling around like Weebles anymore, bent on injuring themselves in a thousand creative ways. But by then, we seem to be stuck in “Perpetual Parental Terror” mode. We don’t let them jump on beds. (They might fall and break their necks.) We don’t let them climb trees. (They might fall and break their necks.) We won’t let them jump on trampolines unless they have nets. (See above for potential danger.) We won’t let them use knives. (They might cut their arms off.) We won’t let them cross the road. (They might get hit by a truck. “You’ll be nothin’ but a greezy spot!” my grandfather would say. We Sorensens all share a love for powerful imagery.)
We got together with some friends last Halloween and talked over our childhood Halloween memories. It was funny how similar our stories were. Apparently, when our generation was growing up there was an awful lot to be afraid of. You had to check every piece of Halloween candy to be sure it was safe. The opened ones, even if the wrapper was only slightly torn, were off limits. (Might be poisoned.) You couldn’t eat a whole apple. God forbid! (There might be a razor blade in it.) We could never be out of our parents’ line of sight. (We might, nay, would certainly, get abducted.) And the list goes on…
The truth is, I understand all those fears. I feel them keenly. The more my children travel, spend time away from me, encounter new people and new challenges, get hurt, and make mistakes, the more I feel the horror of what could happen. And I haven’t even begun to deal with the challenges of online activity and teen relationships. But I read an interview recently with Bear Grylls that challenged me and gave me hope. You might know Grylls from shows like Man vs. Wild and Running Wild. He’s a survival expert. His shows mainly consist of him being abandoned in some of the most perilous places on planet Earth. He has to find his way to possible rescue points, stay warm (or cool), find water and food, build fires, scale cliffs. I’ve seen him kill and eat rattlesnakes, ford dangerous rivers, shimmy into ravines and find his way home with a few sticks and a rock. If anyone in the world understands just how many things can go wrong at a given moment, it’s probably this guy. But the interview (Outside Magazine, Dec. 2015) opens with Grylls leaving his 12-year-old son, Jesse, on a cluster of rocks off the coast of northern Wales while the tide is coming in. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution was doing a training exercise, and Grylls allowed his son to be the volunteer, the one in danger.
Grylls received criticism. Fans and some members of the RNLI expressed their horror at the risk he was taking. His response? “When we try to strip our kids’ world of risk, we do them a gross disservice. We teach them nothing about handling life. I believe it is fundamentally unfair to put children in a holding pen until they are 18.”
Interesting. Here’s a man who’s seen some of the worst things nature could throw at you. He knows what could happen to his son if the training exercise goes wrong. I suspect he also knows that he and his son could be killed in a car accident on their way home from the exercise. I suspect he knows that risk is an ongoing part of any life that can really be called a life.
Our children might get their knees scraped or their arms broken. They might fall and hurt their heads. But if we want to raise men and women of purpose and courage, we’ll have to lay aside our fears long enough to allow them to take some risks. Will we teach our children (by our own fear and excessive caution) that safety is our highest goal? Will we impress upon them the absolute certainty that God is not strong enough to care for them? Or will we show them, instead, that a little pain and a taste of failure are nothing to fear? Will we show them what bold faith looks like?
In that vein, and with the holidays fast approaching, I’ve compiled a brief list of gift ideas to encourage both parents and children to take a few risks.
The Risk List
- Building Sets – We love the Marbulous Marble Run, K’Nex, and Treehaus Castle Blocks, but whatever set you choose, encourage your kids to build something without a blueprint. Try building it with them. It might be challenging. It might not turn out like you hope. Take the risk anyway.
- Compass – A good compass is a lot more fun than you might think. Once you learn to use it properly, you can play games with it. Try hiding something in the house or the yard, then give your child exact directions to the hidden item. (15 steps northwest, 21 steps east, turn south, take another 8 steps, etc.) Or, next time you go camping or hiking, try setting out toward the unknown. Make note of which direction you’re heading, and use the compass to find your way back.
- Rope or Paracord and a Book about Knots – Last Christmas, we bought My First Book of Knots for our son, thinking he could learn some useful knots for his camping trips. But it has proven to be a great learning tool for all of us. We’ve learned how to make double figure eight knots, bowline knots, and square knots. Try tying a rope to a tree branch and swinging on it to test your knot-tying skills.
- Tree Climbing Paraphernalia – Maybe it’s just me, but I think that climbing trees should be part of every child’s life. Try buying a rope ladder or nailing a few boards to the trunk of an old tree to help kids get up into the branches. Maybe they’ll find a cozy reading spot or hang upside-down. Deep breaths. They’ll most likely live.
- Pocketknife – The first thing my son did when he got a pocketknife was slice his finger. It bled. He hasn’t done it since. Try whittling a branch to a sharp point and goring a hot dog. Or, if your son or daughter likes to cook, get them a good cooking knife. Practice cutting things together.
- Challenging Books – I’m thinking “challenging” in terms of vocabulary rather than content. This may not seem very risky, but I’ve fled from Russian literature for years because of the conviction that it’ll be too difficult for me. Try presenting your kids with beautiful copies of classic books. (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Treasure Island, The Red Fairy Book, etc.) Depending on their age and reading level, you could read aloud to them, take turns reading to one another, or read the same book independently and discuss it.
- New hobbies – Never tried archery? Knitting? Chess? Watercolor painting? The recorder? Buy the supplies and consider learning together. Maybe you won’t be any good at it. Maybe you won’t even like it. Take the risk anyway.
- Cards and Invitations – This idea is a bit more abstract, and cards may not be the best way to accomplish it, but I think it’s wise to encourage our children to take risks when it comes to relationships. (Eleanor Estes’ The Hundred Dresses is a great, short book to read on the topic.) Try sitting down with your child and writing a letter or card to someone he or she has never spoken to. It could be one of the shy kids in school, a new kid at church, the son or daughter of your friend who lives in Oregon. It could be an invitation to a party or a baseball game. Whatever the method, it’s a way of saying, “Hi. My name is _________. Would you like to be friends?” I don’t know many things riskier than that.
If you have other items to add to The Risk List, feel free to share them in the comments section. It’s good to hear from parents who’ve navigated these waters, who’ve learned to differentiate between fear and wisdom. We’ll take all the encouragement we can get.
Photo courtesy of Carey Pace (www.careypace.com)