Let’s Go Do Something Dangerous

It’s motorcycle season up here in Western New York, the season of paradise finally having returned to us: six months of weather-driven ecstasy that would make a poppy field jealous. Men and women (mostly men) who are rediscovering freedom mount up on hogs to ride away from fetters upon the low rumble of open internal combustion. Commemorating the rising spring sun of motorbiking, women set out the yellow “Look” signs in their front yards, weeping and ululating as women of yore did when the warriors set off in the spring, looking for war.

LOOK_Sign_ONE_programI think they should take them down. You cannot serve two masters: you must either love danger and hate safety or hate danger. To lay a wreath of guilt upon ordinary automobile motorists is unconscionable.

  1. Motorcyclists are, by nature, risk-takers. They would not be riding motorcycles otherwise. Actuarial tables do not lie.
  2. A motorcycle is much smaller than a typical automobile, and, thereby, much more difficult to see.
  3. Motorcyclists tend to prefer the “flat-black” aesthetic in the motorcycle, the clothing, and the helmet. Black, as nature would have it, absorbs light, etc.
  4. A typical “fender-bender” involving two automobiles in a “look” situation will probably yield an angry exchange, perhaps a witty joke when heads are cooled, an assessment of damage and fault, and a repair bill that will probably not exceed the deductible of a common collision-insurance rider. The same incident involving a motorcycle and an automobile will probably yield life-threatening injuries to the motorcyclist. A safety-rated crash helmet will protect the head but will not protect the body like one belted into the cockpit of an automobile. The laws of physics prevail. The lower-end caskets start at about $1,000.
  5. We need men and women who appreciate danger, and embrace it, not fear it. A society that fears danger is already dead (let the reader feel free to supply their own qualifiers).

I once took my boys, when they were still little, around 7 and 4, to the Erie Canal to go fishing. I set the older boy up with basic tackle and left him alone to try to fish. The younger boy I took aside to the nearest bench, which was about 25 yards away, to get him set up. There was a recalcitrant knot in his line, so I was intent on that, not watching the older boy. A white-haired man approached me, laying his shadow across my work.

“Is that your child over there?” he asked, pointing to the older one.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m teaching him to fish.”

“He doesn’t have a personal flotation device.”

“Come again?” I asked.

“He isn’t wearing a personal flotation device,” he repeated. I blinked. I had no idea what game this was. He continued, “If he goes into the water, you go to jail.” In a civilized world: a) this man never speaks to me; b) his protasis has the apodosis “he may drown.”

Being a good citizen, I cowed and summoned the older boy over to me, but I was incensed. What I should have said was (l’esprit de l’escalier being what it is), “I’m willing to take that risk in order to teach the boy not to tip into the water, like a idiot.” And that really is the goal. For safety we have become barbarians to each other.


The Mrs. and I are conscientious free-range parents. They are thrown out of the house, given bicycles and other wheels for locomotion, and told the range of their freedom, which has a minimum length of time. It has ever been thus, according to our parental wisdom that they have become mature enough to experience freedom from us, and we from them. There is a risk, of course. One or both of them might get hurt, or even killed, and we do not want that. We would be devastated, and we would probably seek recriminations if possible, being emotionally-driven creatures as we are. The risk increase of their getting hurt or killed without us, as opposed to the risk of the same hurt or death coming to them with our being there with them, which is infinitesimal to begin with, is multiplying very small numbers, still giving you a very small number.

The idea, of course, is to instill in them a certain measure of wisdom to trust their instinct when it says to avoid certain situations, to reason through certain difficulties they may encounter, and to avoid high-risk/low-reward behavior. Where is the balance between risk and reward? I don’t know. Each of them will work it out for himself, hopefully with minimal pain, but not too minimal. Pain teaches. If anything, pain establishes thresholds for endurance, which builds character.

What kind of pain will you endure to acquire this object of your desire? Will it give you happiness? Is the exchange beneficial?


There is a bully across the street, an unlikely candidate (sweet boy), but his family circumstances are not good, and he is acting out (as the saying goes) by picking on my smaller boy–actually physically hurts him. Because my boy is free to come and go (unlike at school), we do not insinuate ourselves into this situation. He is free to return, like a dog to vomit, to that environment, and he is free to avoid it. Better yet, he is free to try to work out some sort of boundary with the kid. Believe it or not, he asks us our counsel without asking for our effective presence, and we give the former freely.

Naturally, his older brother is supposed to keep an eye on the situation, as a witness and as a bigger presence than the bully. He’s not very good at it yet, but that’s the point. They’re working out brotherhood and neighborhood under the wide open blue sky and the all-seeing sun.

If it is true the worst thing that can happen to you is that you might die, you are already dead.


Update: two follow-up posts.

  1. The Structure of Free-Range Parenting
  2. Battling Anxiety Through Free-Range Parenting

54 thoughts on “Let’s Go Do Something Dangerous

  1. “I’m willing to take that risk in order to teach the boy not to tip into the water, like a idiot.”

    Oh, please, please, PLEASE say this next time but call me over first so I can watch. Personal flotation device? Hold up your middle finger and declare, “And this is my Unsolicited Opinion Device. You gave me yours, now I’m giving you mine.”

    Yeah, I don’t have the balls to do it, either, but it sure is fun to visualize.

    PS: In WWII, the Royal Air Force came up with two questions to screen potential Spitfire pilots: Have you ever ridden a motorbike and do you own one now? If the answers were Yes and then No, they were trained as pilots. They reasoned that anyone brave enough to try it out but wise enough not to continue doing it was ideal. *rimshot

    1. David Duke

      Apparently it’s the law in New York that if your child falls into the water, the parent is criminally negligent, or something like that. At least that’s what the guy was threatening, so it’s irrelevant whether it’s true.

    2. Enjoyed your post. My husband and I do not have children yet but I always imagined I’d be quite the overprotective, worry wart. I see other parents seeming like they “don’t care” (by allowing their child to stand unattended by water or some other danger) but in reality it may not be that they do not care, rather they’re trying to teach their children than protect them from everything. (Although, some parents I believe, really do not care).

      In any event, I do hope to become less of a worrier and more of a praiser, innovator, educator and whatever else I can be for my family.

      Thanks for sharing. I am new here and I created a new blog called Real Life Natural Wife. I enjoyed your page and I hope you’ll come visit me and tell me some of your thoughts.

      Enjoy your day!

      1. David Duke

        Nowadays it’s a conscious effort, and every once in a while, you have to re-evaluate, readjust the boundaries, take a stiff drink, etc. to grow with growing boys.

  2. Hehehe will definitely be using the unsolicited advice finger. I have never heard about a law requiring kids to have flotation devices if there fishing off a bank/pier I mean parents are usually way more concern than anyone if they feel their kids are safe leave them alone.. Let people live we are creatures we make mistakes we live we learn we grow. We can’t live ourselves afraid and planning every single what if this or that happens. We can’t try to figure out every single possible way to avoid death or injuries. Wow law? We’re our freedom to parent as we see it he was just fishing

  3. You must listen to the invisibilia podcast episode about the increase of societal fear over the decades despite the world statistically not being any more dangerous than it used to be! Eye opening stuff!

  4. “The idea, of course, is to instill in them a certain measure of wisdom”

    And I agree with this as the goal of parenting. The world is risky and we do our kids a disservice if we don’t teach them how to navigate it.

    Specifically about the motorcyclists, though – I drive a car but I have many friends who ride. I am more than happy to be extra careful, as is my responsibility, but it would help quite a bit if the motorcyclists at least met me halfway. If they didn’t engage in shenanigans like zipping into my lane literally 3 feet from my front bumper and darting between cars via traffic lanes of their own making before merging in front of another car and expecting them to stop on a dime, I would have a lot more sympathy.

  5. You’re a great parent, but I wish the phrase “free range” didn’t exist. Free range just means kids are allowed to be kids. Their parents love them and want them to grow into the people they’re meant to be.

    1. David Duke

      I’ll probably do a follow-up to deal with just this. I was thinking about how much structure we still have in our household.

  6. Yes! A person learns to figure stuff out by figuring stuff out. It starts with small stuff and then gets bigger. If the first time a person has to figure something out is whether to get married or buy a house, s/he will be crushed by the pressure. Decision-making skills got to get grown like everything else in a kid.

  7. Why do we fear death?
    Because of the experiences we don’t want to miss.
    Every time we miss an experience, or sanitize it to oblivion, for safety’s sake, we die a little.

    Been reflecting on these things myself, though I must add that I think your black and white love danger hate safety is a little strong. Safety is useful so long as you use just enough of it to be able to keep putting yourself in danger 🙂

  8. “Pain teaches. If anything, pain establishes thresholds for endurance, which builds character.”

    Totally agree! Especially in the case of your examples provided.

    I think there’s a great underestimation by many of how valuable it is for the “body” (Physically and Emotionally) to learn something. As opposed to, only the “mind”. Something which becomes very apparent as we grow older.

  9. Shamefully Honest Ocelot

    “If it is true the worst thing that can happen to you is that you might die, you are already dead.”

    I enjoy this turn of phrase. It seems applicable to a great many things in life. I was a “free range” kid and I think having the opportunity to simply explore and not be leashed to fears of danger from everything helps foster a stronger, smarter risk taker in the long run.

    1. David Duke

      I wonder if high anxiety in every walk of life (it seems) can be connected to societal overprotectedness.

      I think I just made that word up.

  10. I am very two sided about this topic. I could not imagine letting my children go and do the things I did as a child, ( at 11 years old leaving in the morning going into the woods following the creek and ending up two cities away then hitch hiking home). My mom and dad were the best parents in the world.
    I always felt like a hypocrite for yelling at my kids for not answering me when they were across the street.

    1. David Duke

      Somewhere else I wrote that it does take a conscious effort to set them free. My next follow-up will be on the environment of trust required.

  11. Ululating! Wow i have never once heard of that word before reading your article. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!:)
    I’m ululating with excitement! 😛

    Hi! I am just waking up in this life! I want to connect with you! I want to learn about you! I want to create cool and exciting things with you! I want tons of money! I want to travel! I want lots of toys! I want to be a good and nice person! I want to be a good Buddhist and stop wanting to stop wanting things! I want to help the Earth be pure again! I want to live in excitement every single moment! I want the BOOM BOOM CLASH LIFE. I want to be a model! I want to be an actor! I want to have a million views on my wordpress site! I want to meet superheros! I want to ride a zipline from the top of Mt. Everest! Sooooo! Come say hi! Check out my site! YAAAAY:):):)

  12. onegidigirl

    I love your posts! I have a I year old son, who I’m thinking will be quite an independent handful. It makes the idea of free range parenting appeal to me (Plus i like the way it sounds). Also, I live in Nigeria, and our Laws concerning parenting haven’t become so rigid and anti-outside/child-alone-outside. You keep posting, I’ll keep reading. Ciao!

  13. Reblogged this on Big Red Carpet Nursing and commented:
    I grew up free range. It’s considered radical these days; some parents have been arrested for allowing their kids a tiny taste of my childhood, unremarkable as it was, then. How will kids grow up and take flight if we insist they never leave their cocoons? What are doing to them, to manage our own parental ancieties?

  14. Amen. Risk is everywhere in life. Some like it, some do not. I just had an epic wipeout at a motocross track last week. I will be out of commission for about six weeks. Guess where the first place is I’ll be going when I’m healed up. You got it – the motocross track.

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