Greetings from 30,000 ft. – Some Thoughts on Reasonable Risk

AT Staff23 Jul, 2012

I’m on another Delta jet today, leaving the Blue Ridge trip and Camp Pinnacle for the Pacific Northwest to debrief with our Leadership Summit instructors (their trips ended yesterday) and help open the Pacific Northwest Adventure and Pacific Northwest Experience 2. I also hope to get some mountain biking or climbing in with Ultimate Northwest 2 students before my next plane ride four days from now.

I would like to thank you and applaud you for letting your teenager take a “reasonable risk” by joining Adventure Treks.  I know it’s more comforting to keep your kids home and that you listened to friends and relatives tell you  that they couldn’t possibly let their kids do something so “risky.” We believe that for first time students, just taking the social risk of attending Adventure Treks and then succeeding beyond expectations, can be a powerful experience. Our goal is to make the reward of being at A.T, far outweigh the risk of coming. We want our students to embrace other opportunities to “put themselves out there” as they accept new challenges later in life.  While, we try to up our safety bar every day at Adventure Treks (after all my three favorite words are safety, safety, and safety) and why we try to eliminate all unnecessary risk, (We are big fans of perceived vs. actual risk.) things don’t always go as we carefully planned.  Even if we bubble wrapped our students and led them on a guided Disneyesque tour, there would still be some risk. We want to give our students a real and authentic experience – something fewer kids have these days in a world of video games, standardized tests and chain stores.  This does mean that sometimes your kids might be cold, wet, tired and uncomfortable, or even get a little lost, but often the things that don’t always go according to plan, can still be safe and create the best memories and life lessons!

In child psychiatrist Dr. Lynn Ponton’s book, The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do What They Do, she asserts that teenagers are “wired” to take risks and that this is a natural part of developing risk assessment skills.  With this in mind, and knowing that nothing can be 100% safe, our challenge at Adventure Treks is to encourage “reasonable risks” and modeling a framework for wise decision making.

Dr. Ponton distinguishes between healthy risks (e.g., trying out for a team, performing music in front of an audience…. and attending programs like Adventure Treks) and unhealthy risks (drinking, driving fast, extreme dieting, promiscuous sexual behavior). Parents should realize that risk-taking is about the teen, not about the parent, says Ponton. “Teenagers engage in risk-taking behaviours to find out who they are, not to rebel or get back at the parent. Engaging in some risky behavior is not only normal, but it’s necessary for teenagers,” says Ponton. “It’s a tool to define, develop and consolidate their identity. Healthy risk-taking is a big part of growth. Teenagers have to learn how to make good decisions and assess their risk in situations. “I don’t see how they could grow up without risk-taking. We’re a country of risk-takers. We have to learn to talk about how we assess risk — and set good examples as parents… and that can be hard.”

There is no doubt that our society is more risk adverse than ever before but eliminating all risks is neither realistic nor ultimately good for our kids. One of my favorite quotes attributed to theologian, William Shedd is “A ship in harbor is safe but that is not what ships are built for.” Rather than eliminating all risk, we prefer to help students identify risks, assess consequences and learn to develop a safe and appropriate course of action when making decisions. When students develop a safety mindset, it makes our job as instructors easier and more rewarding. Our nightly evening meeting at Adventure Treks contains a section called “Safety Checks.”  Here we reflect on the day and look at ways we could have been more safe.  Part of the goal is to make being safe, COOL. (Which runs counter to normal risk loving teenage behavior.) The other goal is to help define a framework for making safe decisions.  We often use the model: Risk = Probability X Consequences.  When making a decision in the backcountry, we need to get the consequences of our actions or the probability of bad things happening as close to zero as we can. If either probability or consequences is close to zero, then we can proceed. We think this model can work as well at home when your child is faced with normal teenage decisions as it does in the backcountry.

In a word where video games let players reboot and start again when they make a mistake, we love getting our students out in the outdoors, where decisions can actually have real consequences.  We hope your children will come back to you more eager to take reasonable risks and a little more versed at making good decisions.  Raising adolescents can be difficult. They are watching everything we adults do. It is our job to constantly model how we make good, reasonable, adult decisions. We’ll try hard to get it right and we hope some of it wears off!

Thanks always for your trust and support.

Best, Dock


View All Posts

2025 enrollment is now open for returning families! Click here to re-enroll for next summer.