Did you hear the one about the boys attacked by a big, brown bear in Alaska? No joke, true story. Just a couple of weeks ago, a group of boys on a wilderness learning trip encountered a bear and her cub, and four of them were mauled.
My 16-year-old daughter could have been there. She was on a similar adventure trip in the middle of nowhere. She made it home safely, had a great trip and is eager to head out the door on her next adventure.
I think about those boys — their chance encounter with the bear, their pain, their injuries, waiting hours to get airlifted to safety and medical care. Then I worry about my girl, but I’m still ready to sign her up and wave good-bye as she heads off somewhere — Alaska, Siberia or Manhattan.
Part of the issue is risk — I want my kids to be willing to take them. A ropes course is fine, a jet ski, too. But bungee jumping? Sky diving? Not on my watch. What about walking to school alone? Climbing monkey bars? Playing on soccer or softball teams? I can find you a story of a child somewhere severely injured or killed doing each of these routine activities. So should I restrict my progeny from participating in them?
Every day brings risks. My teenagers could trip and break a nose, get hit by a car or worse. I think of Leiby Kletzky, the Borough Park boy whose parents did all the right things and yet, the first time he was allowed to walk by himself, it ended horribly.
Should I lock my girls away from the world? Of course not. Should I constantly remind them of the dangers surrounding them and insist on their protection and safety? Not if it would simply turn them into frightened, timid, boring creatures that look like my daughters.
The key job of a parent is to make sure his children learn how to engage with the world. I’m not trying to instill in them a need to go climb Mount Everest, and certainly they should know better than to stand up in a roller coaster. But I sure hope that they will they see themselves as part of this big, crazy, exciting planet.
But am I willing to accept the consequences? I wonder how the parents of those boys are faring. Do they feel badly for sending them off on that trip? What about the parents of a British boy, killed just last week by a polar bear in Norway, on a trip with 80 kids? Could I live with myself if my daughter was the one who didn’t come home? Leiby Kletzky’s parents will be mourning their child forever, but should they have done anything differently? At some point, of course, every kid has to walk somewhere by himself.
Indeed, my duty as a parent is to my girls and their future, not to my fears and nightmares.
My daughter showed me pictures from her trip. There’s one of her climbing a wall of ice, with crampons on her boots and an ice pick in each hand. As she described that day and that climb to me, she lit up with excitement, accomplishment, and a desire to get out there again, into the world and see it, touch it, explore it and the experiences the globe has to offer.
I could have reacted with fear, but instead all I said was, “What a great way to live your life.”