The things I’m afraid my son will do are legion. He’s only eleven and already I’m scared he’ll ride a motorcycle without a helmet, fall asleep smoking, piss off the wrong guy in the bar, snorkel to an underwater cave and swim in. The last one doesn’t quite fit—sounds kind of fun—which is what makes my head spin. I want him to do versions of all these things, just not the ones that get him hurt or dead.
Those are tough distinctions to enforce though, and even with the best of intentions maybe the other guy’s drunk or an idiot. Maybe the sun’s in your eyes. My friend Connie had to lay her motorcycle down and skid under a 14-wheeler that didn’t see her in broad daylight, in open terrain. Scuba equipment fails. Condoms break. It’s a hell of a thing having kids. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / to have a thankless child,” King Lear says, and it’s tempting to add “or any.”
We love our children beyond all understanding or words—my words anyway—and cliché or not, I’d step in front of a bullet for either of mine. But that’s the easy part. What’s harder is knowing they’ll do stupid, risky things, put themselves in front of bullets I can’t intercept. Harder still is recognizing that they should.
My daughter is 29, not out of harm’s way in this unpredictable life but well able to make smart decisions about what to put in her body, when to drive, where to walk, and whether to leap a roof corner three stories above asphalt. (More on this in a moment.) Whatever she’s done to put herself at risk over the years, she’s past adolescence. Her frontal cortex has reached 25; her judgments are as good as they’ll ever get.
When my son was an infant, I would hold him on the couch in the small hours. He’d put a fist at my collarbone as though hanging on in a stiff wind and make little sounds as he dreamed whatever it is you dream when the world’s that new. During daylight hours one of his best things was a repertoire of spasmodic hand and arm movements as he tried out his limbs: the Yul Brynner (“This is my land, these are my people”); the Mussolini, both arms straight and chopping downward, making some severe point; the Don Corleone, fingers touching lightly as if holding a flower then waggled ominously (“We have a problem”).
That’s when, awake or asleep, they’re helpless as bugs on their back. Then they start to crawl and walk and drive and fly, and lie with ease and go to parties you don’t know about. Soon my son will become a hormonal IED, making it up as he goes along, and his mother and I will spend years hanging in the gulf between trust and fear, suspended by love and worrying it won’t be enough.
I never did hard drugs or had unsafe sex (much). I never wedged myself into a tight spot thirty feet below the bright breathable air. Never picked a fight with someone who might beat my head in with a brick, never drag-raced drunk. But my friends and I ran through the woods all day when we were kids, back before there was a killer on every corner, and I did plenty of stupid stuff on my own. In seventh grade, Billy O’Loughlin heard that if you held your breath and got squeezed in a bear hug, you’d pass out. This seemed worth trying—what could go wrong—so we headed to a hallway bathroom between classes. I went first and dropped like a stone, catching him unprepared and smacking my head on the tiles. I came to with a hushed roar in my ears and the sense of a crowd around me. The insulation-covered ceiling was replaced by Billy’s terrified grateful face (I wasn’t dead), and I wove my way to social studies.
Years later, sober as a judge, I leaped into a doorway while trying to dunk a Nerf basketball and nearly knocked myself out, denting the plaster arch with my forehead and entering dumbass lore and legend, possibly forever. My friends had the good grace not to laugh until it was clear I hadn’t cracked my skull. I also did my share of driving when I shouldn’t have, which makes me cringe now that I’m old enough to have lost friends to bad luck, bad genes, grim diseases, no seatbelt.
It’s a strange kind of calculus, but it’s possible to think about how much danger you want your children to face. Think of it as a curve: clearly you don’t want them at the violent extreme —refugee, street kid, orphan in a war zone. But do you want them at the far end? That’s the boy in the bubble, watched round the clock and proof against everything but cancer or asteroids or earthquakes. Does that really sound more like love than sending them out to play?
So the question becomes where along the curve is ideal. Military and security specialists talk about acceptable risk, but that’s one concept when it’s embedded in a government white paper and another incised on the bedroom ceiling at 3 am.
You don’t want your kids to have unsafe sex, but you also don’t (at least I don’t) want them to have no sex. I would prefer they didn’t find their niche as meth dealers, but I won’t lose sleep over the odd joint with friends. You certainly hope they won’t travel to places they might return from in a box, but who would squash a child’s delight in this enormous, fractal, wondrous world? That questing spirit is inseparable from love, the Big L, in all its forms. Unfortunately it lives right next door to reckless.
It’s true that most things we learn by doing, often badly and repeatedly. You find limits by bumping into them. Equally true, but tougher to live with, is that I wouldn’t wish on anyone I love a life without risk or regrets. Living fully means sailing out of sight of shore now and then. Which looks great on a greeting card, and it’s a breeze to agree with until your kid is in the boat.
Or on the roof. When I was about my son’s age we lived next to an elementary school, and one Saturday evening I was on top of it. The school tucked into a long, sloping hillside—you climbed on a dumpster at the low end to pull yourself up—and I had walked the length of the gravel-tar roof to the far side. The blacktop where we played basketball and punched each other in the arm lay twenty or thirty feet below. The view was great, over trees to the cloud-drifted hills lining the Mohawk Valley. From somewhere in my reptilian brain came the impulse to jump across the L-shaped corner where the gym jutted out, which now seems insane—alone, in sneakers, at an age when tripping and falling were everyday events. I backed up, ran like hell and jumped. For perhaps a second I hung over the kickball court, then slammed onto the other side and rolled and got up. I don’t remember what it felt like walking home, or at dinner. I don’t even remember coming down. I suppose my blood was half adrenaline for an hour.
I can go years without thinking about that long moment in the air, but when I do it still hollows out my bones. It was the chance to die for nothing, and I took it. All I can hope is that my son, long after he’s stopped listening to my advice, will be both adventurous and lucky. Be dumb if you have to, I want to tell him, but not lethally so. Stumble and laugh about it, just stick around to be tortured by your own kids. And when you want to fly to their rescue constantly, fling yourself into every battle, good luck with that too. Think a lot. Most of the time don’t jump.
[Refer: This essay refers to Christin Rice’s essay “The Ride of My Life.”]
David Raney is a writer and editor living north of Atlanta with his wife, two kids and a rhino/Labrador mix. His writing has appeared in a couple of dozen places, most recently Flash, North Dakota Quarterly, and Texas Review.
Image by Camera Eye Photography