Risky Business, This Parenting Gig

by Danielle Veith

“Making the decision to have a child—it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”            - Elizabeth Stone


A few months ago, we went on a walk in our nice, quiet neighborhood. My husband and I, both kids, and two out-of-town friends with their kid, just strolling along on a warm summer evening. My husband had our son on his shoulders and was chatting with the other husband, also with kid on shoulders.

I remember feeling free and happy, walking a little ahead of the rest to try to keep up with my daughter. She had a ton of energy and was—after asking permission, as she does for everything—running ahead of us. Since it was something I’d been working on, I was marveling at how ok I was with how far away I was allowing my daughter to be. She’s good about stopping at driveways, never heads for the street, so what could go wrong?

 Doing their own risk-assessment, while I stand back.

Doing their own risk-assessment, while I stand back.

For whatever reason, after watching her a bit, I decided to run up and chase her. I had almost caught up with her when, seemingly out of nowhere, but actually from the other side of a parked car, a uniformed police officer appeared. He was crouching down, so as to not be seen, and had a very big gun in his hands as if he might need to fire at any minute. He held his hand up and then waved his arm, signaling “be quiet” and then “get the hell out of here.” On the other side of the car, in the street, was a man in plain clothes—the person he was after? Another cop in plain clothes? I had no idea. They were both looking across the street at something, but I didn’t stick around to get a good look.

My heart beating through my sundress now, I grabbed my daughter and ran-walked back to the rest of our group, who were caught up in conversation and hadn’t yet seen what was happening ahead. We got ourselves back to our house, only half a block away, as fast as we could without seeming too panicked to the kids. Surely, our out-of-town guests, who live in a rural area out west, were wondering exactly what kind of neighborhood this was.

Not knowing what was happening just down the street from our home, we decided to get in the car and take the kids for an impromptu, pre-dinner ice cream, to distract from any questions. About two hours later, after calling the police, who initially couldn’t discuss an “ongoing situation,” I got a call back explaining the “situation.” Apparently, they had been responding to a call from a neighbor who thought they had heard someone trying to break into their house, but it turned out to be nothing.

I want to let my kids run ahead of me. I really do. Even after that and the hundred other things that make me hold my breath. But it’s so hard not to think constantly about how quickly, from where they are right at this moment, I could gather them back into my arms and safety.

When you become a parent, the idea of risk takes on a whole new meaning—evidenced by a sudden need for guardianship paperwork and real life insurance and all of those grown-up things that my husband and I really mean to keep getting around to doing. It’s one thing to think about risk management in your own life in a whole new way.  It’s a whole other thing to teach it to your children, but it’s surely one of the most important lessons there is.

 Tree-climbing, an excellent way to teach risk-assessment, and something my kids almost never get to do.

Tree-climbing, an excellent way to teach risk-assessment, and something my kids almost never get to do.

My daughter falls a lot, sometimes while standing perfectly still. Sometimes while sitting in a chair, she’ll just fall to the floor. It’s baffling. Over the years, I have developed the bad habit of constantly reminding her to “be careful,” even though she’s a risk-averse kid. But inevitably, when I don’t, she gets lost in her busy mind, and, often, gets hurt. Judge all you want—if I can avoid a crying episode or five, it’s often way too tempting to utter those words: be careful.

With my youngest, I have had to shift into a different gear. He almost never falls, as in I can’t even think of a time. He takes more risks, but I work to stop myself from saying anything. It seems like absurd helicoptering to say “be careful” to him and it’s relatively easy to let go of it.

The other day, he carried a big plastic tub full of art supplies up and down a full flight of stairs. He’s two. And he was fine, so I’m glad I didn’t notice until it was done. If my daughter, three years older, had attempted such a feat, what would I have said to her? And if I managed to keep my “be careful” inside, would she have been able to do it? Or would she have fallen? I wish I knew.

One of my greatest goals as a parent is to try not to pass along my anxieties to my children. But, oh, this world, with it’s violence and horribleness everywhere! Every time there’s another shooting—today at a children’s hospital—I can feel the worry seep under my skin. And I know already where it will make itself visible—anywhere I can control.

They need to learn. They need to fall. They need to run ahead. They need to learn how to manage risk—to see if they can carry a heavy thing up the stairs, to learn to look both ways on their own. Of course, they do.

But still—up ahead, running farther and faster every day, is my heart outside my body. And damn, it’s terrifying.

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