In my work with children and families, I have been thinking more and more about risk assessment, the importance of risk for healthy development, how to balance risk with reasonable safety, how experiences managing risk build capable children who become responsible for their own safety, and how especially in the US fear and litigation tangle and create a strangle hold on outdoor play opportunities. To start a dialogue around all these complex ideas is important and extremely necessary.

Is this safe?

I cried with relief and joy last month when my youngest son returned safely home after a year-long Army deployment to Afghanistan. As an Apache helicopter mechanic, he was much safer than most. But war is war. When he first told me of his decision to enlist six years ago, I had a very difficult time wrapping my brain around the idea that my son was choosing a life journey that included joining the U.S. Army, in the midst of two horrific wars. I became paralyzed with fear. My mind throbbed with an equation that burned like a sizzling neon ember: ARMY=WAR=DEATH

It took me a while to come down from off that ledge. Lots of crying, reading, dialogues with my son, yoga, walks on the beach and a few good therapy sessions moved me to a safer spot on the ledge. But my fear quadrupled as he left for his first deployment to Iraq. He tried to put his safety in perspective for me with a bit of comparative risk assessment, “Mom, statistically my risk of injury and death is much less in a war zone than if I commuted five days a week on I-95.” I didn’t believe it.

Susan with her son Steven

Last year his second deployment to a much more dangerous situation in Afghanistan loomed. Thinking about my precious son through only my emotional lens flooded me with fear. I revisited his statement. Considering realistic risk assessment and the lack of control over safety that we all face every day, war zone or not, I could be a tiny bit more at ease.

My son was courageous, smart, and thrived on exploration, adventure and challenges, so I trusted that he would keep himself safe to the best of his ability. I forced myself to consider a new equation: ARMY=WAR=UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY FOR LEARNING

I will breathe a huge sigh of relief when his enlistment ends in June….

At our recent Ice Castle Festival and Play Day we set up a plastic bubble house. Staff members experienced one at the recent US Play Coalition Conference. We all agreed that children and adults alike would love the adventure and novelty of playing inside a translucent plastic bubble kept inflated by a simple window fan.

Playing in the bubble

It was a hit! While an adult kept watch, the children were having a blast inside. A little three year old boy ran for the door to join some friends inside. To my surprise his dad quickly scooped him up as if he were snatching him from the jaws of a killer shark. I could sense his intense fear for the safety of his child even though the house was clearly safe and supervised. He was paralyzed with fear by this equation: PLASTIC BAG=SUFFOCATION=DEATH

As parents we want to protect our children. I was petrified as my son plunged himself into a war zone. This dad too was thinking only of protecting his son from his perception of inevitable suffocation. The equations motivating our actions were far more emotional than rational and, while understandable to all who love their children, actually kept us from evaluating the situations and acting in our children’s best interest.

Moving beyond fear
How do we move from paralyzing fear to calm realistic risk assessment, making decisions based on intelligent analysis about whether the benefits outweigh the risks?

Well, somehow I got there, managing to keep a lid on my fear and support my son’s courageous choice. So did the Dad — a while later I saw his little guy inside the bubble playing happily with his brother and friends.

Safe and happy

What fearful equations keep you from using your intellect, common sense and ability to evaluate situations that might include beneficial risk? Are there times when your focus on minor risks might prevent you from acting on things that truly are dangerous?

Check out part 2 of this post, here.

© Susan Caruso and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012
Photos © Jaime Greenberg and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012