Sunday, October 25, 2009

Risk Assessment.

The kids and I spent a glorious morning over the weekend leading a "nature playgroup" at a wonderful and underappreciated gem of an urban park. (One of my most delightful jobs is to lead these nature playdates for families with children...we get out and explore the urban park system and generally have fun just messing around in natural areas.)

J and L (and about 15 other kids!)were frolicking in the sunshine, picking up leaves and tossing them high into the air. We were all on a hill that was dotted with huge, sprawling oak trees. There were sticks and acorns everywhere. J immediately found a stick about 6 inches long, as big around as, oh, I don't know, Barbie's leg. He didn't want to put it down. He was carrying it around under his arm, holding it like a walking stick, even cuddling with it at one point. And in his exuberance, he was running and jumping.

I wasn't going to be "that parent" who won't let her kids play with sticks (and who am I kidding? I'm not that parent.)But then again, it did cross my mind that, well, he was running with a stick.

I actually had an entire internal dialogue about this: Should I put a stop to this? No, he's fine, he's having fun. Let him enjoy it. What's the problem? Relax, I told myself. You worry too much. A wisp of anxiety floated through my mind...well, he could get hurt, couldn't he? But really, what are the chances that he'll actually poke his eye out?

Well, wouldn't you know. The moment I had that awful thought, J fell down. Onto the stick. Luckily, it didn't actually enter his eye, but it came darn close. For a few moments there, I felt like The Worst Mother in the World (again). I mean, I let the kid run with a stick on wet leaves: OK, not the best choice.

So. The corner of his right eye is bruised, swollen, and scratched. He cried for a long time, but was OK. No real harm done. In fact, he's a little proud to tell the story to anyone who'll listen.

I've heard lots of reasons for parents and educators' not wanting kids to play with sticks, and injury is top among them. But it's often there that people stop. Well, OK, I ask them, so what if there was an injury. Would that be OK? Or not? Is the risk worth the benefit? How bad would it be?

When it comes to playing outside, many parents hope and try to eliminate the possibility of any injuries altogether. How can you mitigate every possible risk? I don't think this is realistic, or even possible. I'm certainly not saying I think injuries are good, and I'm not trying to minimize real risk and real injury. I'm just saying that sometimes minor injuries aren't necessarily as bad as we imagine them. The risk of getting poked with a stick is, to me, not high or bad enough to warrant removing sticks from my child's repertoire of playthings. And isn't that how it is with most risks involved in outdoor play? There is often a considerable risk of some relatively minor injury and a much, much smaller risk or something much, much worse. So, when do we refuse to let them have the experience because of the small risk that Something Really Bad will happen?

Now granted, I recognize J was darn lucky this weekend. It could have been really bad. But it wasn't. And most of the time, thank goodness, it just isn't.


  1. I think that this sort of risk assessment goes into every facet of parenting. And you're right--the benefits often do out weigh the potential risks. Sometimes children learn the best lessons from their mistakes and mishaps. And by getting hurt, it gives them the ability to assess risks on their own in the future.

    I was thinking the same thing two weeks ago as I watched my 3 & 5 year old take turns jumping off of a 2-3 ft stump in our back yard. I imagined the stump tipping over, I imagined them twisting or breaking their ankle. But in the end I felt the benefit they gained by climbing and jumping was far greater than any small risk that something could go wrong (though obv, if I thought that it was likely they would break their leg I would have put a stop to it).

    Glad you had a great time at the park, despite a run in with a stick!

  2. Sorry we missed it. Halloween-related festivities with friends came up.

  3. I am happy you wrote about this, and the benefits usually do outweight the risks.

    Andre's dad had three sisters and a mother who was totally over protective. I think it actually accounts for the sour relationship they have now. He STILL talks about things like how his mother wouldn't let him climb a tree.

    I think it is important to let our three year old daughter experience things but often catch myself warning of dangers that more than likely won't happen. Minor injuries seem to happen frequently but I agree that she learns from them.

    I like how you mentioned that just as you were having that dialogue in your head, J did fall with the stick. This happened to me just the other day. We were out walking with friends and my friend's kids took off on a bike and tricycle without their helmets, something no one noticed until the boy on the bike pointed it out a ways from the house. We were three moms, all with babies in slings and carriers, and we decided it would be ok for the kids to not have helmets since they would park the bikes in less than 60 seconds on the other side of a little bridge at the start of a trail into the woods. We told the boy he was very right for pointing out he needed his helmet. We even made a little joke amongst ourselves that now someone was going to fall off their bike. JUST after this, the boy's younger sister, not yet three, took off down the little slope that lead to the bridge, which was 6 inches higher than the trail. When her bike hit the bridge she face planted onto it. In the end, she was fine, but YIKES!

    Great blog, I had no idea, I thought you quit your other blog and didn't know about this one!!

  4. Oh wow, very well said. I am so so glad that he is okay! That is so like me to think exactly as you did. You are a great parent just for thinking of it alone. At least he is fine. I struggle with being the helicopter mom and I just want to protect them all of the time....but we do have to let them have fun to and experience life, I know. I even worry about the harm that could come from using oral pain meds when there is an injury. Of course, we do use them but I also like this natural pain cream from Topricin for the minor aches. I don't have a good point here with this one. What to do?

  5. I have this discussion with myself all the time. Usually I'm on the "don't worry about it" side. But last week at knitting a pediatric resident was telling us about a patient she had, a two year old, who punctured a one inch hole in the back of his throat while jumping on the bed with a comb in his hand. So now I'm a bit more cautious about stuff like that but at the same time, sticks are so fun!