One of the few benefits of traveling across the country is that I can catch up on some reading during the flight, and I was particularly taken by an Andrew McCarthy piece in the National Geographic Adventure magazine, this month. “Going Back In” is about a teenage girl who drowns in the South Buffalo Fork of the Snake River during an adventure camp, and McCarthy coming to terms with the guilt surrounding the tragedy.
McCarthy does a great job of capturing the essential juxtaposition of developing leadership and independence in our children, while attempting to protect them from the dangers of the outdoors.
“Katy’s death went to the core of the school, because it wasn’t some random accident. It happened while attempting to apply everything the school teaches and encourages – students making their own decisions…” – Gary Cukjati, Instructor
This issue is particularly personal for me, because I have friends in Oregon who lost their teenage son to a river, in the summer of 2007. Guilt casts a wide net; the parents who let their sons swim in a river as they had done numerous times before, a younger brother who couldn’t save his older sibling, friends who weren’t there but could have been, and friends on the fast water rescue team who had to recover someone they had watched grow up.
There is a fine line between fear and respect, but both make us slow down and consider the ramifications of a potentially dangerous situation. As adults, we base our respect on the lessons of experience, but for our children it is more conceptual and difficult to grasp. Without the opportunity to learn from experience, though, our children cannot fully-develop a healthy respect for the outdoors and learn to minimize risk.
We deal with risk every day, from riding in a car to crossing a busy street. We can reduce risk by wearing seatbelts and looking both ways, but we can only reduce it – not eliminate it, altogether. Swimming, hiking and climbing in the outdoors is inherently less risky than many of our everyday activities, but less risk is not no risk and this is one of the greatest lessons we can teach our children. The risk of not doing so is a lifetime of guilt.