A 16-year-old, a foreign country, and mudslides

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You should have seen it, mom, it was worse than that narrow windy road through that tunnel in Switzerland! It was like the bus was literally hanging off the cliff, and they’ve had mudslides there…”

My 16-year-old buzzed with excitement about the perils of the service trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos he’d recently returned from. There’d been no talk or pictures on the trip blog of this crazy road the bus had travelled on, no specific permissions asked of that or the bridge he told me about where they had to get out of the bus and walk across because all together they’d have been too heavy.

What? I knew he’d be building floors, and working with kids in the communities they visited, but danger? Had we signed on for that?

Scrubbing the kitchen counter clean, trying to look and sound nonchalant, I nodded.

“That’s awesome, honey. Were you scared?”

“A little, not really,” he said with a shrug. He’d gone back to his phone, to Snap-chatting with the friends he’d made from around the country, to posting selfies of his cute self to all and sundry.

He’s home safe, I told myself as I unloaded the dishwasher, why worry now?

Danger lurks around every corner, but to allow my kids to explore life and have any adventure at all, I just can’t think too much about it. If I do, I very well might find myself like the dad in the movie “The Wolfpack,” locking the door from the outside and never letting them leave the house at all.

I had this conversation about taking risks recently with a psychotherapist, a lovely woman whose job it is to listen to people and to help them, and to train other therapists to do the same. When I mentioned being a risk-taker, she talked about a client who’d gotten drunk and had a one-night stand with a man “whose last name she didn’t even know.” She’d brought him to her home, “which is very dangerous,” she said.

I found myself vociferously defending the woman’s right to take the risk, to trust her own instincts and do as she pleased. I think my psychotherapist friend was a bit taken aback, but I continued.

“Isn’t it subjective that that’s ‘dangerous’ behavior? Isn’t what someone chooses to do in their own life up to them?” I argued. I compared it to speed limits that are arbitrarily set, and “rules” that are created by people for other people all the time, that often don’t work in preventing them from behaviors they choose to engage in. “But this woman came to me, for help. She didn’t like her behavior, and it fit with a lot of her other impulsive decisions in life that aren’t working for her,” my friend countered.

I thought of my kids, of trouble they’ve gotten in because of following their impulses, of the dangers they’ve put themselves in purposely or not, of the dangers they are sure to face moving forward. I shrugged.

“I think the biggest problem we have is judging ourselves all the time for the things we do, in large part because we fear others’ judgment,” I said. “Who is anyone to say what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong?’ ”

It is interesting to explore how sure we are of what “dangerous” behaviors are, and how judgmental we are of other people — our kids or our clients — for engaging in them. It is interesting to think about how much we listen to outside judgment for engaging in “dangerous” behaviors ourselves.

I dare say there is very often a fine line between being adventurous and acting “dangerously,” and I’m not sure — even if I desperately wanted to and thought I knew where it was — that I would be able to draw that line for my kids.

Traveling dangerous roads and drunk one-night stands are not the same, to be sure, but they are along the same lines when I think of how I might advise my kids to “play it safe” in their lives, and how likely they are to take that advice even if I deem it necessary to offer it up.

I had a moment, while waiting for my son’s plane to take off from LaGuardia for Miami, when I began to panic.

How come he couldn’t have just stayed in Brooklyn, hung out with his friends, gone to the movies? Why had I pushed him to take this trip, to go off to some foreign place? Should I have gotten those malaria pills after all? What was I thinking?

But as I stood back against the sink afterward, and saw my son’s tall, proud posture, saw his dimples emerge as he laughed out loud at some or another Snapchat from one of the kids he’d shared some perilous moments with in a country where he’d gone to have fun, learn, and help, I smiled.

Read Fearless Parenting every other Thursday on
Updated 5:56 pm, July 9, 2018
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