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Kids and risk
posted by John : February 4, 2014
Part three of a trilogy (much like Douglas Adams' triology) on risk. Part one is here. Part two is here. A kind of reboot of part one is here, written for Sierra Trading Post. This focuses on how risk affects my time outdoors with my kids.

When I'm adventuring in the wilds with my kids we are often faced with choices. Turn left or right? Go up or down? Press on or turn back? Often those choices are influenced by the risk associated with them.

Remember that there are two primary contributing factors to risk: Likelihood and Impact.

Likelihood is a measurement of the chance of an event taking place. An example most of us are familiar with is weather forecasts. When the forecast is 90% rain (a common occurence around my house) it means that on nine out of ten days with similar conditions there will be measurable rain.

Impact is a measurement of the result of the event when it occurs. Impact can be objective ("This event will cause $100 damage.") or subjective ("It will be severe.")

The simple spectrum of risk I generally use is High, Medium, and Low. This can be "computed" by using a table like this.


Consider crossing a steep snow slope with rocks at the bottom. We encountered this scenario on a July trip to the Fremont Lookout in Mount Rainier National Park.

I looked at the slope and assessed my risk. Low likelihood of falling and low impact because I know how to self-arrest. Low risk. Then I considered my kids' risk. Medium likelihood of falling and high impact for a high risk because they can't arrest. Uh oh.

It was clear that unless I could reduce the risk our trip would be over almost before it began. In this case, I determined I could reduce the risk by reducing the likelihood and the impact of a fall.

The likelihood could be reduced because I'd hold their hands across the slope and we'd go one kid at a time. (Yes, that means I crossed the slope 10 times. Risk reduction is rarely free.)

My hand-holding also served to reduce the impact of a fall. Unless I let go after they fell they weren't falling very far. Certainly not down into the rocks at the bottom. (A side effect of this mitigation was a slightly sore and sweaty hand, but an acceptable cost.)

After mitigation, the likelihood was low and the impact was low. I had successfully reduced a high risk to a low risk so we continued on. (And had a great time.)

But what if I hadn't been able to reduce the risk?

If it was just me I might choose to continue across the slope in spite of the risk. I know the feeling of falling and sliding out of control. I have the scars to remind me of just how painful an injury can be. If I fall and get hurt I'll heal and carry on. I'm confident I'm mentally prepared for the pain and anguish of being immobile. Experience has made me resilient.

It's different for the kids. If they fall they could be scarred for life. Literally and figuratively. There are few things I could do to my kids worse than rob them of their budding love affair with the outdoors. Of course, one of those few things would be a life-long injury. I already fight with the beginnings of arthritis in my thrice-repaired knees and my finger will never be straight again. Those injuries resulted from risks I had knowingly accepted.

Even if I were to decide to accept risks and their attendant consequences on the kids' behalf I can't. These risks belong to them, not to me. Even at 10, Clara's not old enough to truly understand risk and make her own decisions. Heck, I'm not always sure I'm able to do that at... however old I am.

One of the problems our kids face today is they are being forced to be grown up at younger and younger ages. Culture forces adult concepts on our little ones before they're able to deal with them. Whether it's sex or alcohol or drugs or backpacking in a National Park. As adults, we can shield them and help them make the right decisions, but we can't make the decisions for them.

That means we can't force them across a steep snow slope without mitigation and we can't make them overcome their fear of heights to ride the zip line in the backyard.

Instead, I try to help them to understand, at an age-appropriate level, the mental process I use to make decisions. Although it took quite a bit longer to get to the Fremont Lookout than if we had all just tromped across the snow all of us felt better about our decisions.

In time, I hope they'll come to understand and respect risk as I have. Ultimately they'll make decisions they can live with regardless of the consequences. When that happens I'll know I've taught them well.

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