#015 Why I let my son get frost bite and the dignity of risk

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Recently I sent my son out onto a mountain during the frigid Canadian winter on what was the coldest and windiest day of the year with gusts of wind strong enough to close down parts of a ski resort and a chill of colder than -30 degrees Celcius. When he returned, he had frost bite.

On his face.

What on earth was I thinking you ask? Should somebody call and report me? (OMG I really hope nobody reports me!)

What I was thinking, was a reasonable assumption of risk and the dignity of risk.

Our family spent a couple of days at Mont Tremblant, Quebec. A popular ski resort in the Laurentian mountains, a few hours north east of our home.

Mont Tremblant has a program called, A Mountain for All. This program offers support for adventure enthusiasts of all abilities and disabilities to experience the fun and adrenalin rush of black diamond skiing.

Child skiing with assistance.

Now, my son Will has limited use of his arms and legs but that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm for hurtling down the side of a mountain and break neck speed. He likely gets that from his dad – he certainly doesn’t get it from me! Just the idea of Will on a chair lift makes me stomach fly up into my throat.

If you’d like to see what this all looks like you can check out a video of Will skiing last year at goodthingsinlife.org/ski.

This year, the weather conditions were terrible. It was super cold, very windy and the blowing snow was something else. It was very risky. We bundled Will up in layers and made sure that not a sliver of his skin was exposed. He looked like a storm trooper with his gear on! Or we thought we had made sure that not a sliver was exposed… There must have been a little entry point. Because at the end of the afternoon there is was. Frostbite. Right on his sweet, soft, smooth cheek.

That kind of thing is like a punch in the gut to a parent. But what can you do? I mean, you can decide not to ski. And maybe we should have made that decision that day. I mean, it was risky!

But here’s the thing. There are consequences to deciding not to take risks and preventing your child from taking risks.  

The term, ‘the dignity of risk’ was first published in an article in a 1972 article called “The Dignity Of Risk and the Mentally Retarded” by Robert Perske. Don’t get caught up by the R word. It was a different time and Perske was advocating on behalf of people with disabilities.

The idea is that taking risks is essential to a person’s Dignity, self-esteem and personal development.

Every great or even minor accomplishment in life comes with risk. New experiences, skills, competencies, and relationships all come with the risk that we will get hurt.

Actually, Also risk is part of old and boring but we often don’t notice because it doesnt’ FEEL risky. The sense of risk has worn off. The actual degree of risk in many of our old and boring choices, decisions, etc. doesn’t go away.

So. Growth requires risk.

This reality calls on us as parents to resist the urge to helicopter parent. What I mean by that, is that we need to give our kids some space. Some room to try, to make decisions. Some of our kids will need support to make decisions but supportive decision making is not the same as us making all of the decisions for our kids or over riding their decisions when we don’t like them.

The dignity of risk also implies the dignity of being allowed to try and fail. Scary, right?

But think about what we communicate to our children if we tell them that they are too fragile to cope with failures, set back, heart aches or even heart break.

Part of how we learn resiliency as we grow is to actually experience getting through difficulty and coming out the other side. Part of how we learn courage is to try, fail, and observe that had the strength to come out ok in the end.

By preventing our kids from taking risks and making some of their own decisions about risk, we foster learned dependency. Where over time, our kids don’t even try to grow into adults that have responsibilities, and make decisions and take risks. They may have all kinds of potential that goes unactualized because they are raised to look to someone else to do everything, including decision making, for them.

Now, we are talking about children here. So, all of this risk taking and decision making does have to be reasonable given their age and stage in life. The dignity of risk is about the reasonable assumption of risk. Not the blatant disregard for safety or exposure to extreme harm.

I didn’t let my son ski down that mountain in a sweat shirt and his sneakers even if he didn’t want to wear all the gear.

But I’d encourage you not to evaluate a reasonable assumption of risk based on your child’s disability, label and certainly not on their “mental age” (a highly problematic concept that I think is more harmful than the R word).

All things are risky. This is a really unfortunate reality for parents. There is actually no way to protect our children from the possibility of harm. It is terrible and unfair and I’d like to lodge a complaint about this but that office is apparently not open to feedback.

So, it is true that all things are risky and that this is going to continue to be the reality. There is no avoiding risk. There is only trying to make informed decisions about risk.

What you CAN do is consider the chances that harm will actually occur, the degree of possible harm, and the likely benefits.

Here are three questions you can ask yourself.

1. How likely is it that something bad will happen?

2. How bad is this bad thing? Slightly harmful right through to life threatening.

3. What possible benefits come with this decision?

Let’s look at some examples.

One can choose the risk of building friendships and a life of belonging in their typical neighbourhood school where there is a risk of rejection and bullying.

How likely is it that something bad will happen? In this case there is a quick and sadly easy answer. There is an almost 100% chance that your child will experience some rejection. How do I know? Because we all experience this at school and because kids with disabilities have higher than average rates of rejection.

How harmful is this harm? Well, that depends. It depends on how much rejection one experiences and what other experiences one has to counter the rejection.

What are the benefits? Well, relationships and belonging in your community is the absolute foundation of a good life. So, the benefits are pretty powerful. The benefits of having relationships and belonging in community even keep you safe! So risk reduction is one benefit of taking this risk!

OR

One can choose the risk of a segregated and congregating school program where their only friendships are with other kids with disabilities and their environment is tightly controlled. This creates the risk that your child will know nobody in their neighbourhood, will have no preparation for life in the community and spend their life primarily in the role of a client of services.

Ok, so how likely is it that something bad will happen. Well, the answer is the same. About 100%. But the thing is that in this option there is less likelihood that the kids your child spends time with will be able to tell you when something bad happens. If your child might have a hard time communicating to you what has happened then you might not ever know.

How bad will the bad stuff be? Well, spending your life as the client of a service and never really belonging in your community sounds like a pretty terrible life to me. Check out episode 3 with Guy Caruso for a breakdown of the harms of a life of clienthood versus a life of citizenship.

How good are the benefits? Well, not so hot in fact. Research has consistently shown that segregated and congregated programing results in lower levels of achievement. Having relationships with other people with disabilities can be wonderful and meaningful, of course. But ONLY having relationships with others with disabilities means that your entire pool of friends are people that experience the same discrimination and lack of opportunity that you do which means they can’t offer you a hand getting ahead in life. You know, it’s not what you know but who you know.

Obviously, you can argue with this example and you should. But I think you’ll find that no matter what decision you or your child is considering, you will find that both sides carry risk. You can’t get away from it. And I think you’ll find that answering the three questions (How likely is harm? How bad is the harm? And what are the likely benefits?) is a really helpful framework for evaluating risk and is a framework that you can teach your child with a disability to help them to learn how to make good decisions about risk taking.

Are you familiar with the term “risk tolerance”? Risk tolerance refers to how comfortable you are taking particular risks. Some risks might feel better to you than others. Your vision for your child’s life basically is going to determine your risk tolerance for certain kinds of risk. Now, you might always have a higher risk tolerance than I do. Meaning that you might be more comfortable in the presence of risk than I am regardless of the risk itself.

But your vision is going to influence how you answer the three questions about the example I gave, or any other risk decision for that matter.

If you aren’t sure what I mean, or if you want to think about this some more, you might be interested in a free masterclass I am offering about how a parent’s vision for the life of their child is the basis for a life of belonging. If you are interested in joining me, you can sign up at goodthingsinlife.org/masterclass. I hope to see you there.

Oh! And PS. Will’s face healed fine. No scar. And he says he is still glad he went skiing.

Thanks for Listening!

Resources & Links Mentioned:

Image of two children at a playground. One child has a disability. Text reads A life of belonging for children with disabilities. A parent's vision is the foundation for a life of belonging. Click here to join us for a free one hour masterclass.

Will’s skiing video

Guy Caruso discussing a life of clienthood versus a life of citizenship in episode 003

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