Here is a famous story about my father. In the early/mid 1980s, the school Lindsey and I attended required parental permission before students would be allowed to bike without helmets. My father sat down, unfurled his fountain pen and wrote: “Recognizing that risk is an inherent part of life, I grant permission for my children not to wear helmets.” We were, of course, mortified.
Don’t worry: I make my kids wear helmets, and we recently lugged a car seat and booster all the way to Jordan. Those decisions are easy, armed as we now are with lots of data about brain injury and car crashes. But not all decisions about safety — in general, and specifically as they relate to children — are as clear. I look back and marvel at some of my parents’ decisions. What were they thinking when they let me travel to then-Leningrad in 1991, age 14, during the Gulf War and a time of famine and political upheaval in Russia? But then again, how cool is it that they did?
We have been getting a lot of credit for being “brave and adventurous” parents this year, and I’m not sure whether we deserve it. Back home, people think of the Middle East as one gigantic war zone, but I am writing on a beautiful balcony, listening to birds in the park next door. (I understand my privilege, though; only internationals and Israeli Jews live in my neighborhood). It was jarring to be in Jordan, falling in love with the country and its friendly, relaxed vibe, while also hearing how tourism is down and exchange programs have been cancelled in light of “events in the region.”
After so many years of being responsible for other people’s children, let alone our own, Terence and I hardly throw caution to the wind. But we do try to stay cool headed in evaluating risk, including the risk of “events in the region.” As Terence always says, the odds of getting killed in a car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike outweigh those of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem.
So sometimes we do things that seem outrageous to others but in practice are pretty mundane. Take bringing a 3 year old and a 5 year old across the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge to Jordan, a journey that even hard-core travelers seem to fear. (Though to be fair, the fear is more about hassle and intimidation/aggression rather than physical danger). It turned out to be a total non-issue for us (again, thanks to our privilege and national identity — we were pulled out of lines or waved through various checks four times while others, primarily Palestinians, waited. We are the “beneficiaries” of the profiling system).
But then risk can sneak up on us in situations where no data exists, no research would have been possible. We took the kids to Karak Castle, an old Crusader castle in Jordan. We were having a great time exploring the walls, views, tunnels and dark rooms.
And then Hannah wanted to go her own way, we said “yes” (or I guess we must have, I wasn’t really paying attention) and the next thing we heard was a piercing scream as she fell a substantial distance from a wall that had crumbled right under her feet. She landed in centuries’ worth of dust and dirt, which cushioned her fall but coated her body and matted her hair. To me she looked like a 9/11 survivor walking away from the scene at Ground Zero.The whole experience terrified Hannah, even though she wasn’t actually hurt. All our exhortations to “be strong” and “bounce back” fell on deaf ears, and she didn’t really recover until the next day. Of course we beat ourselves up and replayed the moment. But it also interested me that so far the only dangerous experience of our year abroad had absolutely nothing to do with terror, politics, Middle East security issues, etc.