I just spent the weekend with my grandchildren: Alexis, three and a half, and her brother, Gavin, 9. The negative rules of our house are: no TV, no electronics, and no snacks. The positive rules of the house are: play table games a lot, talk a lot, read a lot, and generally explore the world outside a whole lot. Deb and I are blessed with a house on the edge of our little town of Lodi behind which is a kind of city storage area where there are huge mounds of gravel, road tar, blocks of various kinds, sand, and dirt. We call this our “west 40” (actually about an acre), as compared to our “south 40” (about a half-acre), and the “north 40” where we store all kinds of firewood. For the grandkids, however, the west 40 is “the park.” It is the favorite place to go and play when they are with us. We also frequent the nearby creek where we play “boats”, namely throwing pine cones into the creek to see whose “boat” goes the farthest. Gavin and I also play “swords,” namely picking up some sticks and attacking each other…well, usually just attacking our opponent’s “sword.” We used to play “whips” made of small branches from a local weeping willow, but alas, the tree was cut down. Nevertheless, we have this array of outside thing to so when the kids are here in addition to swinging on our homemade swings in our back yard, and occasional walks around the neighborhood, which happens to be Alexis’ second favorite activity after the “park” “mountains.”
I have been thinking about writing this “Don’t be Careful” for some time because I so often hear, “Be Careful!” coming out of the mouthers of parents speaking to their children. Now at 70 my exact memory for my childhood is fading, but I don’t remember hearing many “Be Careful” words from my parents. We lived on “the lake” (as Lake Wisconsin is known in these parts), a great place for being outside. My brother Bill and I, often together with our neighbor, John, used to swim, boat, and water ski. We would sometime swim to “the island,” which I suppose was maybe 200 meters from our shore, and perhaps a bit scary when you are halfway or so. But the more challenging things we did on the water had to do with the boat. We weren’t irresponsible with racing the boat into dangerous places; it wasn’t our style. We did, however, “ski” with various things that are not exactly designed as water skis, like logs and tables. The logs didn’t really work, as I remember, because as soon as the boat gained a bit of speed, the log would go directly under water carrying it’s rider with it. The table, however, worked a bit better, upside down, of course. It took a bit of maneuvering to ride this table/ski because an upside down table is, perhaps not the most stable of things, and not, perhaps truly designed as a water toy. We tried various kinds of tables, finding the round ones best. One of the round tables, however, was metal, and we soon found out that it didn’t float for long, and when it tipped, it was worse than the log. I don’t recall if my mother knew of our odd activities on the lake, but if she did, she didn’t say “Be Careful”. I think she trusted us. Perhaps more importantly, she just expected that we would be careful. More important yet, she wanted us to have a good time and explore the world we lived in, which happened to be a lake. Bill and I survived, and I think we were all the better for it. Yah, we broke a few things, got a few scratches, and challenged a bit of life. Once Bill broke a water ski coming off a water ski jump. He survived.
My weekend with the grandkids was without Grandma who was in parts West including Santa Fe for a conference and God knows where after the conference hiking canyons and visiting Native American cliff dwellers. It was a bit of work being alone with the kids but not so much as I let them do a lot of things on their own or with minimal supervision. For instance, in the “park” (read, city gravel and sand storage area back of our house), the kids love to run up the “mountains” and try to be king or queen of the mountain. To my surprise, they both wanted to slide down, including the gravel mountains. Ouch. Somehow they didn’t get scratched up, and their little butts seemed no worse for the wear after these experiences. I did wonder how Mom might have responded as they were sliding down these hills of sand and gravel. And I wondered more about Mom when Gavin decided to throw stones in the neighborhood of his sister, trying to get close but not hit her. Should I say, “Be careful, Gavin, not to hit your sister?” or should I just let him throw stones hoping that he doesn’t hit her? I went for the hope. I found it a bit of a challenge to avoid the “Be careful” words that certainly sound more like an invective than an instruction.
I think “Be careful” should be replaced with, “Be courageous.” Helping kids learn to be courageous rather than being careful might help them overcome the irrational fears and undue fear that so many kids seem to have these days. Being courageous means willing to do something that might result in a reward rather than in safety. “Safety first” might be a good sign to have when working with high voltage equipment, but I don’t think it should be the first instruction when kids decide to do something, like swing high on a swing, run into a forest, or slide down a mountain of gavel. The etymology of the word courage comes from the French word for heart (cuer). So “courage” means something like, “take heart” or “trust your heart.” When I trust my heart, I am not always right, and I am not always safe. But when I engage in heart-based courage, I just might improve my heart while conquering undue fear of the unknown.
There is something very important and very special about the unknown, largely because there is a lot more unknown than there is known. Estimates are that we understand less than one per cent of the functioning of our 100 billion celled brains, and neuropsychologists continue to work on increasing those percentages while knowing that it will be centuries, millennia, or never before we really understand how the brain works. It is the unknown that stimulates science of all kinds. It is the unknown, as well as the scary, that gets us to go into haunted houses on Halloween. It is the unknown that helps us discover cures for Ebola and other diseases. But when we face the unknown, we will always to scared…or will we be excited…or will we be courageous?
So what about the caveat to my challenge to the “Be careful!” expressions. Shouldn’t be want our kids to be careful so they don’t get hurt? Shouldn’t we want them to avoid broken bones? Shouldn’t we want them to be alive rather than dead from some foolish experiment? Yes to all these questions: we want them safe, we want them alive, and we don’t actually want them to be hurt. The problem as I see it, however, is that we have sacrificed most of the “Be courageous” for the “Be careful!” And as a result we have a lot more care than we have cuer. We need to be hurt in order to prevent further hurt. But more importantly, we need hurt in order to realize that hurt is necessary in life. More important yet, we need hurt in order to rise above hurt and not be stifled by it. We need hurt that comes from courageous actions, whether going over a water ski jump, sliding down a hill of gravel, or walking in an unknown woods. If we sacrifice too much courage for too much safety, we are impaired both in vision and in action.
So let’s be practical. How should a parent deal with a child who is about to do something that might be hurtful to him/herself or to someone else. My answer, for the most part, is to watch…at a bit of a distance. I think parents would find that in most circumstances the child will be safe. In some circumstances, the child will be physically hurt. In other circumstances, the child will be emotionally hurt. And, of course, in some circumstances the child will suffer some kind of more serious harm. We don’t want to put our kids in “harm’s way” but we actually do want to put our kids in “hurt’s way” so they can learn to live with hurt, learn to recover from hurt, and learn that hurt is not the same as harm. Fear of hurt is a much worse condition than hurt itself.
I was afraid of being hurt in football, so as a result I was never very good at football. My brother, on the other hand, was not afraid of being hurt, and became quite good. He also came home after one game with a broken front tooth derived from an illegal block by his opponent. I was quite upset, being a boy who was too afraid of being hurt, but Bill said that after the illegal block, he got so mad at his opponent that he played his best game ever. Was his “best game ever” worth the broken tooth? I think it was. I never broke any teeth, much less legs or arms, but I was never any good in football. I played for four years but never lettered in the sport, rightfully so. I just didn’t have what it took to be a good football player: courage…courage to be unafraid of hurt.
I saw a young man of 18 about a year ago who was not going anywhere in his life. He said that he really wanted to be a football player, and evidently had a natural skill at it. But his mother refused to allow him to play because he had only one kidney due to some kind of birth defect. So he never played football. And he never did anything else either, eventually falling into illicit drug use and generally finding little purpose in life. I have to wonder: might his life been better had he played football even though he might have lost his remaining kidney, or worse yet, died as a result of an injury? How many kids have kidney injuries in football? Some? Yes. Many? No. Should his parents waived their own worry about their son getting hurt in football for the promise that he might actually gain some self-esteem from it? This is a judgment call that most parents would make against football. I am not too sure that was the right call. Perhaps his parents might have helped him find some other way to challenge life, be courageous, and experience necessary hurt so that he could find his place in life.
Courage is not jumping right in “where angels fear to tread” but sometimes it is jumping in where we pray, “May angels and ministers of grace protect us” as Shakespeare suggested as quoted by Bones in Star Trek IV.