A young couple I know have been excited to watch their son begin to walk, and then run, in quick succession. A recent video shows him opening a door for the dog.
In approximately five minutes, he will ask for the keys to the car, and then life will get really interesting.
I remember a group of parents discussing the rapidly increasing maturity of their young adolescent children. One mother, whose medical practice had given her a long and broad view, said, “I don’t really worry about sex or drugs. I worry about cars.” The room filled with nervous, not-yet-believing laughter.
I have to agree with her, though. Four of my past students have already died much too young–one from a drug overdose, but three, including Dana, about whom I’ve written, in accidents involving cars.
Meanwhile, a Touchstone alum just posted on Facebook. One of his college friends was in the group of climbers who died this past week on Mt. Ranier.
So I’m thinking about physical risk-taking, and how we negotiate that between the generations, and within ourselves.
Over time I came to enjoy many aspects of this part of teaching–the chance to watch the bees in the morning glories, the chance to savor the liveliness of the kids in their own buzz of physical and social activity, and the chance to admire physical learning as practiced by many kinds of kids. I learned to stand and watch and name for myself everything good and growing that I saw happening–and that always helped me enjoy it more.
Still, the real job was making sure that everyone operated within carefully rationed acceptable levels of risk–and that became only slightly less challenging in all those years.
I’m a cautious person, physically, and always have been, even as a very small child. Watching other people dashing to and fro, I often have to swallow a certain amount of instinctual alarm, no matter how charming the dashing.
Still, again and again, when we talked about playground risk in staff meeting, we all wound up agreeing that we had to follow our intuitions. I can hear a more experienced and very wise colleague saying, “If something feels wrong, stop it first, and then think it through. Every time we ignore our intuition, something bad happens.”
Can you feel the enhanced conflict there, for me or anyone like me? If your intuition is overprotective, you learn to disregard it, to some extent–and that leaves you vulnerable.
I keep remembering Mikey coming down the snow-slicked slide, about to fracture his wrist as he broke his fall when he reached the ground. It happened so fast. If both time travel and stop motion had been available to me, I’d have been able to go back into that moment: to factor in the extra slipperiness provided by snow, along with the thinness of the snow cover, providing no real protection against the frozen bark chips at the bottom of the slide, nearly as hard as concrete. I might, no matter what, have trusted Mikey’s own astonishing physical intelligence. But Mikey was young, still learning what he needed to know to be safely someone so fast, someone for whom motion was so fluid and so full of joy.
His wrist healed. He was also one of the ones killed in a car accident, years later, on his way to a ski team event, so all my stories about him have a special poignancy. Nobody had done anything reckless; it was just the wrong intersection on the wrong slippery day.
It’s hard for anyone to judge the costs and benefits of physical risk for young children, for young adults like the ski team or the lost climbers, for one’s self. Nobody, no parent, no teacher, no coach, can do that right every time.
Meanwhile, our goal must always be to empower kids, and teach them, to judge risk for themselves. If we decide to close the slide preemptively, whenever it’s fast with snow and there’s no bump-buffer at the bottom, we need to explain why, in a way that shares with kids what we know about practical motion physics.
(My husband routinely threatens to stop traffic and hold a quick class for all the nearby grown-ups, on how the force of a collision increases much faster than an increase in the speed. It varies, in fact, as the square of the speed. I’ve heard the lecture.)
On the playground and at the park and in the backyard, just as in the classroom or at the dinner table, we need to teach skills, and give kids time to practice skills: not just the jumping or throwing or climbing skills for a particular game, but also the subtler skill, gained only through practice, involved in thinking while moving. Thinking about what’s slippery and the ways slipperiness can change kinetic action; thinking about where your body will be in another few seconds; thinking about other bodies in motion besides your own.
In the playground of life, as I stand and watch and savor the wonderful blur around me, I wind up seeing and appreciating what I saw in school: we each bring many kinds of mental energy to whatever we do, including paying attention. We bring intuitive energy, that lets us notice things and understand them without even trying, the way Bill Bradley knew where the basketball was in relation to his own position, every moment he spent on the court. We bring analytical energy that lets us think through the math problem of the action at hand in a more systematic way. We are so lucky, as a species, to be able to use reflective energy, to look at experience and learn from it and then remember.
Meanwhile, each of us is different, with a different way of weaving those energies (and others) together. I’ve known kids–and adults–who could judge and ration physical risk with exquisite accuracy, until the game involved social interaction and negotiation also. I’ve known other adults like me, climbing up a tree in a burst of enthusiasm and then freezing, needing the Jackie Lockney voice to help them solve the step-by-step and hand-hold by hand-hold problems involved in getting back down–and needing to do that both in slow motion and with the help of a pal.
At this point, I believe truly that there’s no shame in living any of those variations, only in not growing within whatever combination of energies you have. I need to listen to people who don’t see physical risk my way, because I have things to learn from them–but the reverse is true also. Every year I last, I can say with more certainty that there’s nobody here but us goofers, and with the best intentions in the world we will all make mistakes, and need the mercy of others’ forgiveness, and our own.
With any luck, parents’ wisdom about all these things grows and deepens, as we help each child become her own person-in-motion-with-an-active-brain. We watch with both sober concern and wild grateful joy.
And when the time comes, sooner than anyone can believe, we take a deep breath, and hand over the car keys.