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Should parents take life-threatening risks when pursuing their outdoor passions?

Parents and Risk

Illustration by Wade Mickley

By Erica Lineberry and Steve Bohrer

YES: Parents should lead by example

It’s easy to assume that those of us with a thirst for the outdoors will wind down our adventuring once kiddos come along. It’s even easier for some to think that we should trade in our skis, snowboards, and carabiners for pacifiers, strollers, and nightlights.

But many outdoor enthusiasts continue their recreational pursuits after becoming parents, some with kids in tow! At first glance, it’s easy to call the mom dangling from a 500-foot cliff irresponsible, or to accuse the dad ripping through fresh, backcountry powder of being selfish. But zoom in, and you’ll see that the climbing mom is draped in safety equipment and attached to a rope, and the snowboarding dad is well-prepared for off-piste conditions.

In my experience, most adventuresome parents are capable individuals taking calculated risks; not adrenaline junkies scoffing at danger. Take rock climbing. In a sport where mistakes can be fatal, no one can say climbing is without risk. But different types of climbing have different fall consequences, from top-roping at a local indoor gym to free-soloing a big wall. If you’re okay with the consequences of a fall, climb on. If not, take up golf. Well, maybe not golf – a golf ball to the head would surely leave a mark. What about chess? Nope, sedentary activities are bad for the heart.

All kidding aside, every one of us makes decisions based on probable danger, whether we are climbers, skiers, soccer moms, or couch potatoes.  As a parent, running late to a music lesson or sports practice, do you risk an accident by driving too fast, or do you slow down and risk being late? How many times have you faced uncertainty by getting on an airplane, swimming in the ocean, or not wearing sunscreen? These daily risks may be harder to avoid than taking up rock climbing, bungee-jumping, or skiing, but they can be just as dangerous.

According to the American Alpine Club, I’m much more likely to die on the way to the grocery store than on a rock face – fatal automobile accidents reach more than 30,000 per year, compared to 1,400 climbing-related fatalities from 1951 to 2007. Being a mother doesn’t immunize me from the risks of everyday activities like driving, so why should I stop doing what I really love? We shouldn’t raise our children in fear, shielding them from every imaginable risk.

Erica Lineberry lives and climbs in Charlotte, N.C., and is the proprietor of climbing and parenting blog, Cragmama

NO: having kids should change how parents take risks

Firefighters, police officers, and military parents risk their lives daily in service to their country. Should we deny those careers to parents? I think most of us would agree that we shouldn’t. Let’s ask the question more pointedly then: should parents take life-threatening risks in the outdoors in pursuit of recreation?

I don’t believe parents need to give up all outdoor pursuits until their children have finished college. Climbing, skiing, or running trails are more than just pleasant diversions. Mountains, trails, and forests are a part of who I am. When I haven’t been outside for a while I get cranky, and my wife sends me on a trail run to come back to my senses. Time spent in the outdoors recharges my spirit and helps me to be a happier person.

All outdoor pursuits involve some level of risk. We could debate what constitutes “life-threatening” risk till the cows come home. Risk is, by its very nature, ever-present yet unpredictable. Bad things occasionally happen, even to cautious people. However, I think that those of us who regularly recreate in the outdoors have a pretty solid understanding of risks with serious consequences.

When children come into our lives, we need to reexamine the level of risk we’re willing to accept. As parents, our primary responsibility is to our children. We owe them a warm bed, healthy food, and a sense of security and love. I believe parents can and should spend time in the outdoors, but we must seriously question our motivation.That line will be different for every parent. Ultimately, the decision will come down to our ability as parents to subjugate our selfish desires for adventure, adrenaline, or peer recognition to our love for our families.

My wife and I recently returned home from a two-week trip to southern Chile. I will never forget the look in my four-year old daughter’s teary brown eyes as she held my face in her hands, carefully examining me as if to assure herself that I was really there. I could only imagine how much she missed us while we were away. I can’t bear the thought of risking my life for some ultimately meaningless thrill and leaving her wondering why she was less important to her dad than some mountain.

Steve Bohrer is a founder of and regular contributor to The Outdoor Parent lifestyle website and lives with his wife and five children in Idaho Falls, Idaho. 

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