Monday, 11 March 2013

Raising Outdoor Kids: Is it worth the risks?

"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." — Helen Keller

I've been writing about kids outdoor safety, but not much about the risks of raising outdoor kids. And make no mistake. There are considerable risks. The recent death of a fellow outdoor kids blogger's two-year-old son, Axel Charrette, brought this home like a punch in the gut. I never met Axel, his mom Jen (Velo Mom), dad Randy or brother Kalden, but news of his death made me think long and deep about the risks to which I expose my sons. I couldn't help but see myself in Jen's and Randy's boots, and wonder what kind of personal hell they're living right now. The second guessing. The unfounded guilt of making the long line of decisions that led up to their son's death, even though in their mind they must know the death of their son wasn't their fault. I can't imagine being in their position...yet I easily could be.

I've always taken safety in the mountains very seriously. However, the more I experience I gain in my chosen activities, the more I realize how dumb some of the risks I've taken were. Having kids has sharpened my focus on safety, both when I'm out on an "adult" adventure and when I'm taking the boys out to the mountains. I don't want to put my kids through the pain of losing a dad through his ultimately selfish, risky pursuits, and I don't want to see them hurt or worse. But I don't know what I don't know, other than that I can be 100% sure that I'm putting my kids in some kind of harms way through my gaps in experience and knowledge.

But I still take Mack and Michael hiking, snowshoeing, white water rafting, canoeing, skiing...One of the reasons I take them to the mountains--where the dangers range from cougars to grizzlies, falls off cliffs to avalanches--is the well documented benefits of exposing kids to nature. The exercise. Improved mental health. Higher academic achievement. Higher self esteem. If these reasons aren't enough, Mack and Michael genuinely seem to have fun on our outdoor adventures. (For more on these benefits, read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.) Then there are the more selfish reasons I take them to the mountains. I enjoy sharing my passion with them. I get to experience everything for the first time again through their eyes. I prefer spending my weekends in the mountains instead of at the wave pool or the science centre or the mall.

Do the rewards justify the risks? Whether we realize it or not, calculating risk versus reward is something all parents do every time we send our kids to school, drive them to soccer, or send them outside to play in the backyard. In my heart I truly believe the rewards of raising outdoor kids outweigh the risks, but I'm not sure I can express why. It's something I feel in my gut and see with my own eyes when they discover a coral fossil in the scree or make a "first ascent" of a house-sized boulder. I've watched their confidence and independence grow on the trail and continue growing when we get home. I've seen their ability to identify risks and mitigate them improve in the mountains, and how that translates to staying safe in their urban environment. I can see and feel that the mountains and the inherent risks of playing in them are contributing to the growth of my boys into well-balanced, caring, passionate men.

But then...I haven't had to live through losing Mack or Michael to the risks I've knowingly and unknowing exposed them to. If I try to deny that possibility, I'll put them at greater risk still.

END NOTE: Jen Charrette has been nominated as one of the Top 25 Outdoorsy Moms for 2013. Show some support by voting for her (you can vote once a day).

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