When my children were little, the black bears living in the woods behind my house never gave us reason to worry. In fact, my children had little fear of any wild animal in our woods, not even the rattlesnakes (which we went to a lot of trouble to locate and photograph). We did have some concern about tiny animals that spread disease, but those creatures are found mainly in people’s back yards and in cheap motels.
What worries me most as a father is people. People who might harm my children or even carry them off, never to be seen again. People who drive drunk (my son was nearly killed by a drunk driver). People who teach school and dislike children. People who spew hate speech in public and teach my children’s classmates to be proud bigots. People who trigger epidemics by refusing to vaccinate their children. People who deny science. People who embrace cruel or violent religious beliefs. And, of course, crazy people with guns. These are the threats that have always worried me and always will, regardless of my children’s ages. Of course, some of this stuff is scarier than ever, now that my children lead independent adult lives thousands of miles away.
It scares me that I can no longer protect my kids as I seemed able to do when I would shout, “Hold on!” at the edge of a busy street, feeling the grip of their hands in mine. Because now they’re alone and exposed. As adults, they’re vulnerable to deranged drivers cruising the LA freeways, to crazed meth addicts roaming the foothills above, to drug-dealing gangs, to bad people of every imaginable kind.
I can’t protect my children from the emotional perils of adult relationships. I can’t keep their hearts from being broken by unrequited love (or any other kind). I can’t reach for a Band-Aid whenever they suffer an ego-shattering career setback. I can’t bring my daughter’s baby horse back to life.
I can’t stop any of these things from happening to my kids, and it makes me feel helpless at times. Helpless in a way I didn’t feel when I watched them jump onto a school bus for the first time.
When my son turned 21, I told him, “I didn’t have the heart to tell you this when you were a boy, but I’m telling you now: Life is not difficult. It is incredibly difficult. Sorry.”
I try not to dwell on dangers to my children that I’m powerless to mitigate. I just hope. I hope I exposed my children to enough wholesome danger in their formative years. Enough danger, I mean, to prepare them (somewhat) for the really serious stuff, the scariest parts of adult life. I hope they learned something from their mother and me about meeting danger with smirking defiance and a flipped bird. And I suppose I must have, because my kids have already shown that they’re prepared to deal with grown-up danger even better than I.
Want to learn more about why danger is good for your kids? Check out Gever Tulley’s book and watch his TED talk. He is perhaps the leading authority on the subject, and he is also featured on this week’s TED Radio Hour on NPR.