Dangerous Things Are For Kids, Too

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About two years ago, my son, nicknamed "Little Fish", and I had a little adventure. One Saturday morning, when the sky finally cleared after four days of almost-constant rain, we visited a park near our home to shake off our cabin fever.

One of Little Fish's favorite things was to wade through the shallow part of a creek there and play on the tiny delta in the middle. Usually, the water was about ankle deep on me, but thanks to the rain, waves lapped up against my knees as, hand in hand, my son and I waded in.

We were halfway to our destination when I felt the current surge, suddenly topping my hips and throwing bits of wood and other debris at us. Little Fish, terrified, tried to climb up me like some sort of monkey. I could lose my grip on the ground, allowing us to be swept away, or lower myself for more stability. I spared a split-second's thought for the cell phone wedged into my bra (where I had thought it would stay dry) before dipping neck-deep into the rising creek.

I talked to Little Fish, getting him calm enough to put his feet back on the creek bed and showing him to turn his side into the current instead of his front or back so that it wouldn't push him so hard. I was glad that I'd kept him on my downstream side to begin with, because he was sheltered from the debris and the brunt of the rushing water. Holding on to one another, we waded back to shore.

Walking upstream along the bank, we saw where a logjam had broken. We stayed out of the water until dry enough to take the car home and try to save my poor phone.

The phone was a total loss, but at least we came out with a story to tell. I had a few minor bruises -- less than I might pick up in a day's martial arts training -- from the branches that hit me, but I'd covered Little Fish well enough to prevent him from getting bumped around.

I've told the story a few times since then. This last time, a wide-eyed neighbor said that she hoped I'd learned to stay out of creeks, especially with my kid along. I chuckled and said no, I didn't learn any such thing...

We were never in danger of death or maiming, and I tend to chalk up most things short of that to learning opportunity. The water never rose more than waist-high (compared to me, standing). Even if we'd somehow been swept downstream where the water was deeper, I'm a strong enough swimmer that I could have gotten Little Fish to shore safely. Standing in place and wading back, I was able to get him through the whole thing without his face getting wet.

Meanwhile, Little Fish got to experience having something scary happen, using controlled breathing to calm down, and acting rationally to resolve the situation. In self-defense training, we call that "stress inoculation", a technical term for learning to cope with stress by experiencing stress under the watch of a trusted teacher. He learned that a narrower profile can cut through a current, while a broader one will be pushed by it. He learned that he can overcome something scary.

I know a few people (more than a few, actually), who act like my ability to do something reasonable in an emergency is an inhuman superpower. I suspect that their parents avoided exposing them to smallish dangers in childhood, denying them the opportunity to learn that risk is part of life and start acquiring the competencies to deal with it. Dangerous things are for kids, too.

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