Seattle's Child

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Parenting and risk: Why I decided to let my son climb trees

A TED talk changes one parent's ideas about kids, danger, and an understanding of what it means to keep them safe.

Photo: Jessica Lucia/Flickr


After he’d been on a backboard and in a neck brace for four hours, I told my son that he’d never climb another tree. Actually, I told him that he was free to climb trees when he was 32, but what I meant was that he’d never climb another tree. He’d cried when he’d fallen out of the tree, but he wailed at this news. 

For me, trees were no longer these wonderfully benign landscape elements. They were suddenly the harbingers of torn bladders, bruised livers and neck braces. 

For my son, completely unfazed by bladders and livers, trees were freedom and photo ops — he wanted only to make sure that I had taken a picture of him in the neck brace so he could show his brother. 

My climbing ban lasted for two years. Which isn’t to say that my kids didn’t ask every time we encountered a tree.

“Can we climb this tree?” they’d ask.

“Nope, trees are too dangerous. Do we have time for the ER today? No, we don’t,” I’d say. 

“Mom, OK, how ’bout this one?” 

Why did they want to climb trees? Why were they so fixated on charging headfirst into the bowels of the enemy? Did nobody remember? 

Then last summer, I saw Gever Tulley’s TED talk, "5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do." I wasn’t looking for suggestions of dangerous activities; my kids were capable of coming up with terrible ideas on their own. Honestly, I was looking to have a laugh at someone who clearly didn’t know my children.

Then something unexpected happened. Tulley’s ideas about kids and danger changed my understanding of what it means to keep them safe. He argues that we learn most about our world and how to be safe in it by practicing dangerous things. Tulley says we mitigate risks by becoming accurate judges of actual danger. In my case, risk mitigation wasn’t keeping my kids out of trees — teaching them how to climb trees was. 

After watching, reading and thinking more about this philosophy, we’ve decided to lift the ban and let the trees back in with some climbing rules:

 — Get into the tree on your own

— Only grab/step on branches that are bigger around than your arm

— Don’t grab/step on branches if the leaves/needles are all brown

— Stay close to the trunk of the tree

— Climb as high as you like

— Don’t make Mommy look at how high you’ve climbed

So far, so good.

Tulley’s TED talk and book, 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), in which he encourages kids to stand on a roof and burn things with a magnifying glass, can be found here.

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