Industrial arts

Eva Murray: At what risk?

Tue, 02/07/2017 - 9:15pm

Would you let your two-year-old stand on top of a picnic table? If so, does the baby need to be supervised? How close to her would you want some responsible person to stand? If you wouldn't allow it to begin with, what do you expect to happen? If he falls off the tabletop and cries, it is plainly some adult's fault?

This all sounds silly, I know. Most likely everybody is responding with simple common sense, as in, "Why is this even a question?" Of course, some will be following that initial thought with, "Well, sure--what's the big deal about a toddler on a picnic table?" and others will be certain that, "Anybody can see that would be unsafe."

So it's not that obvious.

Our daughter is in the middle of writing her master's thesis. She grew up on Matinicus Island, which, we have been assured by various cranks, is no fit place to raise children because there are no pediatricians or team sports. I don't know the title of her work, but she's committed to outdoor education, and her research has something to do with parental perception of risk as it relates to small children.

How do we get our heads around real and perceived danger? Did her dad and I endanger our kids by living out here, where stormy weather could potentially keep us away from a needed hospital? What are the right questions to ask ourselves? Should a parent be moved to action by a one-in-a-million chance of harm? On the other hand, we have all this warm nostalgia about the "old swimming holes" of our own childhoods. Should we want our kids to grow up to tackle risky jobs, like firefighter, or enjoy risky pleasures, like skiing? How do we raise them to be brave and resilient? Can we do that and still keep them completely safe?

This stuff is hard. There really is no obvious path. How do we sort out what we trust, individually, to be real danger from the things our surrounding culture may encourage –or discourage—us to worry about? Is a sandwich that hasn't been refrigerated for three hours likely to make your child ill? How do you feel about pee-wee football? If you have a strong opinion about either of those, did it come from your own first-hand experience, or, instead, from the other parents in your neighborhood? I know people who live where the cold-pack in the preschooler's lunch box is non-negotiable gospel. I know parents who have decided that their son will — or will not — play youth football long before the little fellow has any opinion on the matter. There is a local majority opinion among the parents, and one is expected to pay attention.

Is it true that society is more dangerous than it used to be? I do not believe it is, actually, and neither is mayonnaise. But these days we can know about every rare and unlikely pitfall, from each horrific crime to each case of 24-hour food poisoning.

You might remember an old sight gag from the cartoons: the movers are hoisting a fully-assembled grand piano up the side of a tall building with what appears to be a clothesline pulley and a half a mile of sun-rotted tugboat hawser. Unwitting pedestrians on the sidewalk below are at considerable risk. It's a joke. Indeed, it would be mighty painful to get hit by a falling piano, but...

Exactly which risks we should worry about is not at all agreed upon, and I'm not just talking about the folks who fret about Great White sharks in Maine, but don't stop themselves texting while driving. It's even harder for parents. We may choose to take risks as adults, but parents who live in some communities, especially, find themselves judged harshly if they do not manage every single aspect of their children's lives with respect to risk. Of course, not everybody lives where they can control what dangers surround their children.

I mean to resist the temptation to prattle on about "Back when I was a kid and we rode in the back of the pickup truck..." because that sort of anecdotal evidence of societal decay has been annoying the younger generation since Socrates.

Yet there must be a middle ground somewhere between total neglect and keeping one's offspring securely parked at the kitchen table in a certified, inspected, age-appropriate, hypoallergenic, seat-belted booster seat. These days, thanks to humor writer Lenore Skenazy's ill-fated public confession a few years back that she let her eager and well-prepared kid ride the subway, and for which she was nearly strung up, we have the term "free-range parenting." Yeah, I rode the subway too, and, being a child of two rather dissimilar (and arguably unsafe) worlds, also rode in the back of the pickup truck. Heck, I rode on top of a large pile of unstable firewood — hell, I rode on a large pile of unstable garbage!—in (actually more like high above) the back of my grandfather's pickup from the Spruce Head end of South Thomaston to the Rockland dump. It was not particularly safe and I wouldn't recommend the practice. It was also not child abuse.

I am not suggesting a life of danger as a child-rearing policy. When our kids were little, there were things we would not let them do, and there were places we would not let them go, and there were activities they had to have a proper lesson in first.

Here on Matinicus, it seemed like each parent picked out something in particular to be afraid of, and allowed their kids to engage in all sorts of alternative fun widely recognized by others as a bad idea. We let our kids dive off the high concrete structure at the ferry wharf into the fairly-revolting harbor water into the stern wash of the actual ferryboat, and we let them sleep on the beach with a pig-pile of other kids, and like most all island kids they learned to drive before the law might like to know about it. Yet we went very nearly berserk at the idea of them riding on the back of any four-wheeler driven by another child (and quite a few of the island's adults). Other parents bought their kids four-wheelers at astonishingly young ages. Some moms were not at all comfortable with the wharf-jumping, harbor-swimming thing.

In terms of our daughter's thesis on risk, she assures us that peer-reviewed studies indicate that, as parents, we were correct in letting her jump into the harbor, and get a few skinned knees, and play hockey and rugby. She didn't mention that time she raced her bicycle with the cycling team on Storrow Drive which to me sounds completely and perfectly terrifying. 


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