Nobody gets out of this alive, but here’s how you can improve your children’s chances: Teach them about real risk.
I’d never heard of the risk/reward ratio when I used to ride motorbikes on the racetrack. I wasn’t a racer but a tester, working for a motorbike magazine testing new superbikes, tyres, whatever, sometimes on the road, sometimes on the track. You learnt fast or you crashed. Or, even worse, the other journalists would brand you as ‘slow’ – crashing was preferable.
But I soon started to work to my own rules. Approaching the 100mph Signes corner at the end of the Mistral straight at Paul Ricard at 180mph, I was being shaken so violently by the chassis and wind pressure that I couldn’t read the braking markers which was interesting, but I kept it pinned until I’d worked it out. Huge run-off area. Risk – big, big crash, but acceptable given that I probably wouldn’t hit anything. Reward – one of the biggest highs of my life.
But at Vallelunga in Italy I was always slow to get back on the power coming out of the tight final turn before the start-finish straight. I probably lost a second right there but I’d never pin it early because there was a huge concrete wall right on the outside of the turn. Risk – crippling oblivion at 80mph or so. Reward – one second. Not worth it to me. I was analyzing the suspension, not racing.
I’ve run that kind of risk analysis for the last 30 years on every scary thing I’ve done. And now I’m teaching it to my son.
The Risk/Reward Ratio
As you probably know, the risk/reward ratio is a financial tool, used to work out whether an investment is going to give a good enough return for the risk. It’s perfect for everyday stuff. But what drives me nuts is seeing all these people saying children shouldn’t take any risk. What happens if that 100-1 shot actually clicks in and your son drowns instead of completing the width of the pool underwater? (I know it happens.)
If you go down that route, and plenty of parents and schools seem to, then you end up like Michael Jackson’s children. Every time one of them dropped a cuddly toy on the floor it was taken away from them. A new identical toy was then unwrapped and given to the child so that they shouldn’t be exposed to potentially dangerous germs.
To hell with that. Let them climb trees, get in the mud, do things that scare them. If they can’t tell the difference between a small risk and a big risk, because their parents have always told them all risk is bad and to be avoided, how are they ever going to get through life?
The Risks of Bridges and Girls
My son is constantly reminded (I believe ‘nagged’ is the technical term) that he needs to run that balance quickly through his mind before doing something. Should he wait for that car to pass or run across now? Reward – saves two seconds of his day. Risk – many broken bones or death. So ‘No’ is the answer in this case. The reward isn’t worth the risk.
Should he go through with his dare to jump off the little bridge into the trickling stream a metre below? (Bearing in mind his eyes are over two metres above the water so it looks further.) Reward – he sees how brave he is, learns how to land, gets a thrilling sense of danger and accomplishment, and feels what the impact is like from that height. Risk – minimal. Might sprain an ankle. I’d say that was a risk worth taking given the odds.
I realize the health and safety nazis will start whinnying that he could break a leg if he lands badly, fall in the water and bang his head giving him a fractured skull and also get Weil’s Disease from rat urine in the water while he’s lying there, leading to thousands of deaths and a tribute page on Facebook led by some bed-wetting liberal, but I’d obviously run through all those risks before giving my son a nudge off the bridge.
It works the other way too. What if he wants to ask a girl out, which happens (bearing in mind he’s 11). To him the risk looks like the entire school listening in, to turn on him roaring with ridicule like some hideous H M Bateman cartoon. But in this case reality, when he’s pushed to look at it, is like this: Reward – boy gets the girl, priceless. Risk – she says no but is flattered he asked. So a much better risk/reward ratio than he imagined.
In years to come I’m sure I’ll be battling with the parental horrors of my son starting to drive and going out with his mates in the car. Statistically that really is a nightmare.
Music, Speed, Action
Between the hours of 2am and 5am in the UK, male drivers between the ages of 17 and 20 are 17 times, yes 17 times, more likely to have a crash than older male drivers. Okay, we need to feed into there that a 50-year-old driver is probably snoring off his last brandy in bed at that point rather than driving, so let’s look at another one: if that young driver has two or more mates in the car the risk of a fatal accident goes up five-fold.
But I am really hoping that, by then, my son is used to analyzing risk, quietly and automatically, so he doesn’t listen to his mates egging him on to drive down the country lane at night too fast with music up too loud.
Teaching your children, particularly your sons, about how to deal with and analyse risks might be one of the best things you ever do for them as a father. It can make the difference between having an accident or not, but also might mean he’s more likely to get the girl as he realizes the consequences of asking aren’t that bad.
Of course, logically, since my son saw me riding motorbikes for many years, he might want to do that himself, and get a powerful bike. Now that is a risk I would deem totally unacceptable on today’s hugely congested roads. I realize that will make me sound like a total stinking hypocrite. But it’s a risk I’m prepared to take.
—Originally posted at Fellow HQ
—modified photo Stuart Caie / Flickr Creative Commons