J.F. Plouffe
Credit: J.F. Plouffe

I used to write, edit, polish story pitches and ponder the folly of freelancing for a living during countless ferry trips between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, usually while going on, or returning from, some adventure or assignment.

Now, I generally spend the time trying to entertain two restless kids, much of it in the BC Ferries’ kids play zone, a bizarre little animal farm where the same dreary children’s pantomime loops continuously on a TV screen. I view this zone as a sort of microcosm of different “helicopter parenting” styles. It’s also fertile ground for pondering the role that risk plays in my life and my approach to risk management with my kids. 

I’ll start with a baseline assumption: we all want our kids to survive, or rather, thrive. Now meet the rules-obsessed, militaristic parents — I’ll call them Mr. and Mrs. No. Every time I’m entrenched in the play zone, I encounter Mr. and Mrs. No — the parents who pounce on their offspring the moment they attempt an ascent of the five-foot-long yellow plastic slide, rather than taking the conventional walk-up route by the stairs. (This, despite the fact that there are no other kids using the apparatus.) Into this micromanaged play environment I inject my two kids, who, like feral animals, immediately remove their footwear and start monkeying around the slide freestyle fashion. I’ve been guilty of my share of overprotective helicopter parenting, but at the same time I recognize the need to allow space for exploration and problem solving, even encouraging a little duet with risk, as long as the consequences to my progeny (or others) isn’t mortal, overly careless and reckless or disrespectful.

Risk is an important aspect of being alive and vigorous, yet it’s widely known that the greatest threat to the youth of the developed world is preventable, often self-inflicted, risk. It’s also known that risk-taking tends to decrease as adolescents ease into adulthood. However, some of the assumptions society makes to explain this shift in behaviour — for example, that teens are less able than adults to assess and understand risk — have not been supported by research. Turns out, teens are not much different than adults in their appraisal of risky behaviour. So why do they choose to engage in risk in such higher numbers? 

Advances in MRI and other imaging technology has greatly increased our understanding of the morphological and structural changes in the brain that occur as a child reaches puberty then advances into adulthood. Adolescence is an intense time of brain development and researchers are beginning to understand the link between risk-taking and brain development. According to neuroscientist Laurence Steinberg, who has reviewed the growing body of research into the adolescent brain, “Heightened risk-taking during adolescence is likely to be normative, biologically driven, and, to some extent, inevitable.” 

Though adolescence is an extremely complex time biologically and emotionally, it’s also a profoundly important time, a period in a human’s life when they aren’t saddled by the baggage of preconceived ideas and notions acquired from a lifetime of acculturation. It’s a time of flowering and of new ideas, and risk-taking is part of that. So no matter how much we want to mold our kids into obedient little foot soldiers, letting them climb up the slide, as long as they’re not trampling on some other kid, might be an important piece of against-the-grain activity and thinking that could bode well for the kid’s future (much better than incessant coddling would). It might even be hopelessly unpreventable, from a parenting point of view. 

I spoke to a friend of mine, 40-year-old Squamish-based mountain guide and fitness trainer Jean-Francois Plouffe, about risk-taking, children and the outdoors. These days, kids spend ridiculous amounts of time using technology. According to some studies, children between the ages of eight and 18 spend, on average, more than seven hours per day using technology. Eighteen- to 24-year-old North Americans send nearly 70 texts per day; more than 2,000 per month. Kids have become so saturated with technology that professionals have conjured a term to describe this condition affecting the increasingly overweight, lazy and inactive youth of today: “nature deficit disorder.” (I can just imagine the behind-the-scenes wizardry at Big Pharma as biochemists devise new drugs to treat this pseudo-condition. Or, we could simply take our kids outside.)

When Plouffe’s son Kaleo was five, he climbed Diedre, the classic seven-pitch 5.7 on the Stawamus Chief’s apron, along with an adult friend. The following year, when Kaleo was six, Plouffe led him up Diedre again, this time without another supporting adult, using colour coded carabineers and a virtually foolproof safety system that his son easily understood, even at such a tender age. In fact, the only risk in this equation was father taking a lead fall; Plouffe says it was a risk he comfortably assumed. For him, falling on a 5.7 had a much lower risk-probability than, say, being involved in a car wreck commuting every morning in Vancouver’s rush hour.

“A lot of people look at this as risk-taking, but I see it more as risk management,” Plouffe says. “I don’t want to be hard-ass about it, and if Kaleo says he doesn’t want to ski or climb anymore, I won’t force him to. For me, it’s a wonderful experience to share with him and I can see it in his behaviour. He’s confident and good at decision-making and he’s not as needy on a day-to-day basis as some other kids I see.”

That’s not to say that Kaleo is a superhuman child; he has moments of petulance, neediness and general childlike disagreeableness. But that’s just part of being a kid. Wait, it’s part of being human — child or adult.

Obviously, not everyone is going to multi-pitch sport-climb with his or her five-year-old. However Plouffe is convinced — and I have to agree — that experiences with the often euphoric, sometimes uncomfortable realm of outdoor sports and exposure to risk in a controlled manner can be immensely important to the confidence and emotional well-being of a youngster. And it’s hugely rewarding for parents to share a piece of the wilderness with their kid. It sure beats disappearing constantly into the emotional vacuum of fingertip technology. 

The other day, I got my hands on a copy of Topher Donahue’s 2008 book Bugaboo Dreams, an engaging tale about the birth of heli-skiing in British Columbia. A quote from a letter written by a young Hans Gmoser captured my attention:

“Where the route leads through forbidding cliffs, there we want to go, even though we are afraid. We don’t mind the hardships and danger, because we have confidence in ourselves, and because of this we don’t fear what’s ahead of us, and this confidence will help us through our difficulties, may they be on a mountain or in our everyday life.”

Gmoser, with his simple yet philosophical prose, wasn’t directing these words at kids necessarily. Yet they speak to the core reason why a little exposure to the excitement, beauty and risk of the outdoors at a young age can build an emotional foundation for life.

So I say, screw the playground rules. Let the kids climb up the slide then down the stairs if they want to. I’ll never claim to be raising baby Einsteins, young Gretzkys or, well, pick your favourite outdoor athlete of choice. But fully engaged, enriched humans are rarely, if ever, entirely risk-averse. 

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2014 issue.