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