Risks and Rewards

I want Sprout to be a free range kid. I want him to be able to go to the park by himself, explore the neighborhood, and when he’s old enough, take the Metro into the city. I want him to climb trees and rocks. But right now, I kind of want to outfit him with a helmet.

In the last few weeks, Sprout has racked up the milestones: crawling forward, getting two teeth in, and pulling up to his knees (and today to his feet!). While the others pose their own challenges, it’s the last one that makes me gasp. Except for the continuing allure of the sproingy doorstop, pulling up on everything is his new favorite activity. In his opinion, the couch, our wooden and metal coffee table, bookshelves, his crib bars, the mesh sides of the pack-and-play, my pant legs and the wall are all excellent surfaces to conquer. At first, he didn’t know how to get down, so he’d just tumble over.

He’s fortunately gotten better at balancing, but that’s just made him bolder. He regularly pushes against the wall, leaning backwards to bat at the curtain, not understanding that leaning on and holding on are not the same thing. Perhaps some yearning for adventure was embedded in his genes when I rock-climbed early in my pregnancy.

We’ve tried to vigilantly prevent accidents, but have been far from successful. We try to prevent him from hitting his head on our hardwood floor by spotting him, but he always manages to fall in the one direction we don’t predict. He cries, then shakes it off quickly after a good hug from mommy or daddy. Even though he’s recovered after each incident and the pediatrician says not to worry about it unless he passes out, I still feel terrible every time it happens. I’m always convinced that brain damage is imminent.

I’m torn between wanting to encourage his adventurousness and protecting him, a conflict I know will only grow more challenging as he gets older. If I’m worried about him bumping his head now, how much harder will it be when he’s on the playground equipment or high up in a tree? Some of my most cherished childhood memories were doing things that are banned or at least discouraged during recess today. Even now, my outdoor hobbies involve some level of physical danger, from rock climbing to urban biking. My life is better for having these activities in it and I think his will be as well.

As Sprout gets older, I think the best compromise between these positions is to teach him how to take calculated risks. Rather than doing everything or nothing, it’s best to take a measured approach to risk. Thinking about your own capabilities, evaluating the difficulty of the action you want to take, and working to reduce the risk as much as possible can provide a framework for making good decisions in general. To go back to rock-climbing, I personally do not boulder (climb short routes without ropes) more than a few feet off the ground unless I’m confident in my ability to climb back down. If I’m going to do a route at the edge of my current ability, I use ropes, harnesses and other safety equipment to reduce the risk of falling. While it’s obvious how these principles apply to physical risks (no one wants to be stuck in a tree like a cat), they also apply to big life decisions. From taking a difficult college class to moving to another country, every major decision has risks associated with it. There’s always a possibility of failure, but calculated risks help you figure out how to minimize it and recover if you fail. Some people in my generation are having difficulty dealing with adulthood because their parents never let them make these big decisions at all, much less taught them the critical thinking skills to deal with the risks.

Unfortunately, Sprout doesn’t understand the word “no” yet, much less have the capacity for any critical thought. But now and in the future, we’ll be there to spot him when we can and hug him when he falls.

4 thoughts on “Risks and Rewards

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