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Kids in the Outdoors: Evaluating Risk

August 15, 2015

I logged onto my computer this morning, fired up the internet, and came across this post on the Facebook page. The picture shows a couple proud parents and their happy looking kid on the summit of Handies Peak, one of the Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot mountains.

I shuddered.

Not because I thought that what they did was wrong but because I knew what was coming: a barrage of insults hurled at the parents. Everything from “WHY would you risk your baby’s life!?” to “I don’t want to hear a screaming kid in the mountains.” There were plenty of pats on the back too, as well as some very worthwhile conversation about things like babies and altitude sickness, but the responses that stood out were filled with vitriol.

These types of discussions seem to happen every time someone posts a picture of a small child doing something “risky”. And while I think the conversation that surrounds them is valuable, I hate how quickly they can devolve into name calling.

We know nothing about these people. We don’t know how much experience they have in the mountains or what their fitness levels are like. We don’t know if they live at altitude (giving the baby a huge jump start on acclimation) or sea level. We don’t know what their mindset was going in – whether they were hellbent on making the summit or whether they were willing to turn back at the slightest sign of distress. We just don’t know.

I have seen a lot of people doing stupid things with kids in the outdoors (and who knows, maybe I’ve been accused of the same). I will never forget the day that I saw a family with two small children leaving Broken Hand Pass, headed for the summit of Crestone Needle (a 14-er that is much harder and more exposed than Handies), in the late afternoon with storm clouds building. That was an undeniably bad idea (for anyone – with or without kids) and it left my friends and I shaking our heads in disbelief. But to suggest, without any other information, that a couple is being negligent in taking their baby on a 5-mile hike on a Class I 14er on a sunny day is something that I just can’t get behind, even if the final destination is the top of a great big mountain.

In the interest in full disclosure, I will tell you that we had planned to do this ourselves. When our kid was born my husband and I had grand plans to do tons of hiking with him and we very much hoped to take him up to the top of one of our tallest mountains. It didn’t happen, mostly because I ended up spending his two tiniest summers trying to recover from running injuries, but we had certainly hoped it would. We’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains and, with every adventure we go on, we know that the first goal is always to get home safely. Everything else comes a very distant second. And sure, crazy things can happen up there, but I’m pretty damn confident that we would have made it home just fine.

Let’s remember that the most dangerous part of a lot of these activities is probably the drive up the highway to the trailhead. And no one tells you not to do that with your kid.

I’m certainly not advocating for risky parenting and I, obviously, don’t think that we should put children in unnecessary danger. But I do think that it’s important to think long and hard about what we consider dangerous, and to realize that there are a lot of variables at play. Rather than immediately judging other people’s accomplishments and decisions because they are different than our own, let’s consider that maybe their situation is different. Maybe they considered the risks, know their own ability levels, and made wise decisions on whether they would try for the summit. Maybe we can give parents the benefit of the doubt and assume that, when it comes to their children, they are capable of making well-informed decisions.

Weigh in! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! What do you think constitutes risky parenting and where do you draw the line? If you have kids, how do you decide what is and isn’t safe for them? And how do you balance the risks (both for you and your kids) with the desire to live happy, active, fulfilled lives? 

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  • Reply Stacey from An Outdoors Family September 28, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    This is such a great article and I agree with everything you’re saying, wholeheartedly! We love our outdoors time with our son, but we take it a day at a time, one adventure at a time and there’s no shame if days don’t pan out as expected and plans change. Our son broke his leg at the start of the year and people said it was because we were so active with him, yet he did it on our back garden step! We wouldn’t change our active lifestyle choices for anything, as you say safety is first and foremost and there’s no guarantee that bad accidents won’t happen doing the most mundane of things. Here’s my rant from earlier in the year….are you sitting comfortably? 😉

    • Reply jendz October 1, 2015 at 10:32 pm

      Whoah, people actually said that was how he broke his leg? Gah! Accidents can happen anywhere (Case in point: I have been nursing a broken toe for the last MONTH. I stubbed it on our coffee table.). I hope your little guy is healed up!

      • Reply Stacey from An Outdoors Family October 5, 2015 at 11:22 am

        I know right! I still scratch my head at that little gem, now that I’ve moved on from other emotions towards them that is!! (My swear tin may have been overflowing for a while there…)
        Our son is doing great now, thanks! I reckon me and my husband worry about it more than he does, but he’s back to running and jumping and just being a little firecracker which is breathless to see 🙂
        Ouch to your toe, I hope it gets better soon!!

        • Reply jendz October 5, 2015 at 3:57 pm

          Ha! I would have filled up that swear tin too. 😉 I’m happy to hear that he is doing better!

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