Reasonable Risk

1981 jeffjessjoe woodThe first part of my childhood spent in Louisiana holds such a special place in my heart, it always feels like home when I go back. My father worked outside the home, but we lived off the land as much as possible. Both my parents grew up that way. Gardening, hunting, fishing. We cut trees for fire wood.

I was five at the time and I remember the dusty, sweet and slightly bitter smell of the trees as dad cut them up and my mom, brothers and I carried the logs back to the trailer. I remember mom telling me to hold out my arms. She stacked a few small logs until I said it was heavy, then she took one off and directed me to the trailer. She filled up my brothers too, then followed us back. We stacked until there were no more logs left. Our pickup truck’s bed was full and so was the trailer. We had ridden out in the back of the pickup truck, but on the way back we were allowed to ride on top of the piled wood in the trailer. I don’t remember if my youngest brother was allowed to, or if he had to ride in the truck with mom and dad on this trip. Mom was a little nervous, but dad said he wouldn’t drive fast. I felt exhilarated as the wind rushed past me while holding on to the logs beneath me. This felt much more free than riding in the back of the pickup, almost like flying. Then we hit a bump in the road, literally. The logs shifted and the fingers of my right hand became pinched between two of them. Tears began to fill my eyes as I looked left to my older brother. He was smiling and laughing. Apparently this was fun. And, it was fun, except for those darned pinched fingers. I managed to pull my fingers free, scratching the skin and feeling the sting. I adjusted my position just as we hit another bump in the road. The bumps weren’t particularly big, but it feels much different when on top of an unsecured load. My brother laughed again and I smiled. By the time the next bump came, I was ready. I braced myself and laughed as we both lifted a little and plopped back down. We were almost home.

My brothers and I were forever climbing trees, swinging on vines (really) to land in big piles of leaves and dirt, wandering around acres of land full of venomous animals, and playing in running streams. Our parents checked on us, but if they knew what we were really up to I’m not sure I would have gotten to experience half of the things I did. Bruises and cuts were a part of our daily existence. There are several of those “When I was a kid…” stories and checklists bragging about how when we were kids no one wore a bike helmet, kids didn’t come home until the street lights came on, etc… I was one of those kids, but today’s environments are different, and more of us are distracted, kids included. Distraction often leads to danger. Guarding children against danger is a good thing. BUT we still must allow children to take reasonable risks. Children still need to be able to climb, jump, run, fall down… A reasonable risk is an action that poses both positive and negative outcomes. For example, a toddler climbs on the coffee table and stands up. The risk is that the child may fall and be seriously injured (negative outcome), but the child may not fall gaining confidence and building useful skills for motor and cognitive development (positive outcome). Safeguards can be put in place to minimize the risk of harm such as teaching a child how to safely climb up and climb down, or by giving them something acceptable to climb on such as the couch or bed perhaps. I am a big supporter of bike helmets, seat belts, and other safety equipment designed to protect us from injuries such as traumatic brain injury.

Children will often find a way to take risks when given the chance. If they are allowed to do so from a young age, they will likely develop the skills to safely physically navigate risky activities. If not given the chance to take reasonable risks from a young age there is the potential that their cognitive and motor skills may not be able to navigate risky activities safely when they get older and want to try something new. The activities my brothers and I engaged in growing up were quite rigorous. I give credit to those experiences for keeping me safe when I began participating in organized sports in high school and college. My one and only broken bone occurred during a cheerleading practice in college. As I dismounted from 15 feet in the air, landing perfectly on both feet, the catchers tasked with slowing the dismount were just a second too late. My ankle snapped. This scenario could have been much worse, right? I could have broken much more, received a head injury… but I didn’t. My body absorbed the impact, brain and organs safe. I had the motor and cognitive skills, in development since toddler-hood, to navigate this risk. All the bumps, bruises, cuts, sprains and stitches were worth it.

What are your thoughts on reasonable risk?

3 thoughts on “Reasonable Risk

  1. What a great perspective Jess! I totally agree with ‘reasonable risk’ being necessary for development of kids as well as adults (myself included;) Without the small bumps/scrapes/’hurt feelings’… I’m not sure we’d ever be prepared for the larger ones that sometimes happen. PS – now I’m gonna let Marley start climbing barbed wire fences a little earlier;)

    • I should have also added how important it is for parents and caregivers to be supportive and present, not to just let the kids go out on their own. Adults can offer a lot of emotional support when the bumps and hurts happen. Explaining why something hurt or happened goes a lot further than blaming or scolding a child when they get hurt. Joe, you and Taryn are great at this with Marley- explaining to her what happened and offering support to her. The barbed wire though…I think you should at least wait until she’s two…of course, you know I’m kidding. 😉

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