Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fear and Risk: Part I

My granddaughter goes arboreal whenever she sees a climbing tree.

Lately, a lot of social media chatter has been on the topic of risk and fear, prompted in part by Richard Louv's recent visit to Baltimore. Richard and I visited with each other a few years ago about his groundbreaking work that identifies nature deficit disorder - a suite of problems that seems to plague children and adults who spend little or no time in nature. I decided not to pursue this topic for my (still ongoing) dissertation research, but my interest in fear and risk is still a topic I am fascinated by. When I was raising my own children, I took a fairly hands-off approach to letting them explore the natural world. Richard calls this being a hummingbird parent, as compared to a helicopter parent. I stood well out of the way, allowing them to make discoveries, encouraging them to spend lots of unstructured time exploring, but always mindful and ready - to include cliffs. My son, an experienced mountain hiker, seems always to find the furthest, highest perch for that important summit picture. Those pictures are my absolute favorite when he sends them along. What confidence! What happiness at his accomplishment! I can picture myself on many, many summits - long exhausting trails behind me, elated that I'd made it. It takes a lot of skill, preparedness, and the ability to weigh the risks.

Finding summits was a favorite passion when my kids were young.  George and Emily (with sketchbook), Acadia NP.

George at a summit cairn on Mt.Monadnock, NH 

Risk is defined as an exposure to danger. There is risk in every part of our lives, and some would argue there is more risk in driving a car on the beltway at rush hour than in climbing a mountain. The important aspect of considering risk in our activities, whether driving a car or climbing to that summit, is how we assess it. Children who are not exposed to risk at all, helicoptered by all too protective parents, never fully develop the ability to assess risk. It is a survival skill that, with plenty of practice and a hummingbird parent nearby, becomes an inherent skill that a child will carry forward into adult life, on or off the trail. A scraped knee is the best lesson on why we don't run blindly down the rocky path, a risk that I as a parent was able to accept for the teaching value of the fall! The safer alternative activity, of course, might be sitting passively in front of the computer or TV, but here no risk assessment skills are ever taught -except maybe that in video games you can always have a do-over. Not so in nature. This is a critical lesson for children to learn about the outdoors. There are levels of risk, some we can accept, and others we should avoid. To do is to learn. 

My grandson is perfectly content to explore on his own. We just keep an eye open for poison ivy and let him go.
But what about fear? Sure there are lots of things that can be scary in nature: the warning hum of a nearby wasp nest, the sound of rapids around a blind turn in the creek. The outdoors child is given opportunity to face these fears, assess the actual risk involved, and to make decisions to proceed or avoid. It takes practice and exposure. Something that many modern parents afraid of. Sometimes the fear of the parent aborts a teachable moment. Sometimes the fear of the parents confines the child to sterile environments where risk is removed.  The child, grown into an adult, cannot make healthy choices about risk and often (without the easy do-over that video games afford) make poor choices. 

Liam loves to explore the crevices and spaces between the rocks on the Henlopen jetties for hidden surprises. 

Just playing outside is not the same as being outdoors. Being outdoors is a state of being. Like a long leisurely stroll punctuated with bursts of discovery, imagination, and wonder.  Unstructured and unconfined space and time for a child outdoors is a process of finding his place in the bigger picture of nature and life. He builds a deep-rooted sense of adaptability and appreciation for natural occurrences. Even death, encountered along the way - a vacant turtle shell, a fish hooked and bleeding from its gills, a skull in the leaves, a dead gull between rocks of the jetty - all become part of the enduring experience of being outdoors and developing an understanding of risk and fear. Questions about why an animal died (there are diseases, predators, accidents, old age) and  how to express sadness (with compassion, empathy, understanding) develop a child's awareness and appreciation of the risk inherent in all life, and that we are part of All Life.

Someday I hope my grandsons and granddaughters will follow their Uncle George into a solo experience with a wild river.

I've worked with many parents over the years who, for many reasons, have a very different relationship with nature as parents as compared with the relationship to nature they had as children. Many parents have told me about their long jaunts into the woods, running out the backdoor on a Saturday morning and not coming home until dinner. They also wonder why they can't be that carefree with their own children today. We begin to think about the virtual world of video games, internet, TV, smart phones. Is this really a safer place for children? Is the world so much more dangerous than when my children were young, or have we made it so in our heads? I cringe with all the fear mongering in the media - fantastic coverage of a world of terrorists/child abductors that take the headlines to a whole new level of sensationalism. No wonder parents are a nervous wreck! 

Turn it off. Just turn it off. Take a child, go outside for a long while, and just Be. Sometimes this experience is more important for the parent than for the child. Once a parent's fears are calmed and a true understanding of real and perceived risk is achieved, then maybe they can allow and encourage their child to simply Be in nature.

I still lead trips for parents only, into wild remote places, so they can come to grips with their own fears and sense of risk. It's an amazing experience for them and me to see their confidence and understanding grow. When they return to their own kids, they tell me of a new-found confidence in letting go a little more, and allowing the greatest teacher of all, Nature, to take the helm.


Richard Louv identified the concept of nature deficit disorder and continue to collect data and write about how this is affecting us as parents and our children:

1 comment:

  1. I love this post. As I child, I did not experience the outdoors in this way. As I grew into adulthood and spent time hiking mountains in N.H. and trail running, that empowerment began. I grew proud of what I accomplished with so little. I now have three children. There are times where I catch myself saying "be careful" on every third sentence. These are the times where I need to find an open space and let them play, let them learn. Thank you for the reminder. :)