There’s been a lot written recently about our obsession with keeping our children away from anything that might be risky. We try to protect them from the world, and in the process they learn to be fearful, creatively stunted people. Lenore Skenazy’s blog entry from today talks about this subject, and I recommend you click over and read it.
I wanted to talk about risk from our personal experience today at Ceraland pool. Ben knows how to swim, but has always been fearful of being in deep water, even though we’ve told him that all he has to do is swim. Then today, after much prodding from his sister and encouragement from me, he decided he would jump off of the diving board into 13 feet of water under the following conditions:
1) I could be in the water in case he needed me.
2) He could wear his goggles.
The rules at Ceraland are that no one can be in the water near the diving boards – the deep end is for divers only – and no one can wear goggles when jumping off the diving board. We had noticed that not all the lifeguards enforced the goggles rule, so I decided not to mention it, and asked only if I could be in the water for his first jump because he’d never done it before and was uneasy. Luckily the lifeguards on duty were reasonable and said fine. I got in the water, off to the side of the board, and Ben jumped in. He swam to the side needing no help whatsoever from me, and that was it. My presence was no longer required. After that he was like a fish, swimming underwater all the way to the side after each jump.
He’d been doing this for 20 minutes or so when the lifeguards switched chairs and the ‘new’ guards immediately blew the whistle and told him he couldn’t go off the board wearing his goggles. He was devastated, and I walked over and asked one of them why not. This is why not: Two years ago a kid went into the water from the board wearing goggles, and the plastic lens broke, cutting the child’s eye. Even though the pool was not in any way at fault – they didn’t force the child into goggles and the goggles were not sold or provide by Ceraland – the rule now is ‘no goggles’.
I argued politely with the lifeguard, telling her I would happily accept the risk. She was friendly about it and referred me to the manager who was walking by at that moment. I told him the deal, he immediately agreed with me and Ben resumed his jumping, goggles firmly in place on his face. Maybe the lifeguards didn’t want to argue with me because I am old enough to be their mother (they are all local high school students), or maybe they do realize that it’s kind of a dumb rule. Whatever the case, I was happy to see them be willing to bend the rules and let us take the risk. Ben’s eyes, I am happy to report, are intact, as are his goggles.
Part two of my diving board story involves another 7 year old boy – not mine – who was at the pool today with his dad. He was in front of Ben in the line, and each time he would go off the board he would attempt a dive, a flip, some weird contortion that ended in a belly flop – you name it. He had no fear and was clearly having a blast, even though his diving and flipping skills were far from perfected and he often looked like he was completely out of control (which I think he was, a lot of the time). I finally commented to the father, who was sitting poolside along with me and my Mom, how much fun it was to watch his son, and he said, “Yeah, I think he’s thrilled his mom’s not here today, because she wouldn’t let him do any of this.” Which on the one hand I understand, but on the other hand is really a shame. Because although the boy was probably at some risk for injury due to his lack of control and experience, he improved over the 30 minutes or so that we watched, precisely because he was allowed to try and try again; to take the risk.
You can’t live a risk free life. Such a thing doesn’t exist. Parents who attempt to shelter their children from all risk are doing them a huge disservice. The confidence Ben gained today far outweighed any risks he might have faced from broken goggles. He is now comfortable in deep water. If he ever falls in to deep water he won’t panic because he’s had the experience from today. The other boy we saw also gained immensely today in his confidence and skills – something that would not have happened if his mom had forbidden him to try.
Kids need to learn to weigh risks and determine which ones are worth taking, but they can’t do that if they never face any.