The Art of Risk

From Lisa Doan, author The Berenson Schemes: Jack The Castaway. Coming this spring.

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One fine morning a few years ago, I saw a news story about “helicopter parents.” These interesting individuals view the world, including other children, teachers, and college admissions officers, as enemies to their children’s very survival. (As far as I know, the helicopter parent association is currently working on a prototype to bubble wrap offspring. The stumbling block appears to be how to get little league coaches on board with the concept.)

Do I blame these Black Hawk moms and dads? No. But I do find their tactics hilariously funny. I don’t have children. (Or if I do, I don’t remember where I put them.) And my childhood was distinctly un-helicoptery. I did some really fun things. Like:

1. Sailing in the dark. One night each summer, my sailing program sent us out on the river. We went out in small prams, sailing around with flashlights and looking for marked buoys. A couple of adults sped around in motorboats to check that nobody was actually drowning.

2. Scavenger hunts in the dark. We went from stranger’s door to stranger’s door, asking for small household items. Again, this was the sailing program’s idea. Were any of these houses a serial killer’s abode? I don’t know, but this activity may explain why you meet so very few adults who sail.

3. Eating rock salt out of the bag in the garage. You know, the dirty kind you throw on the driveway.

4. Trying to get the swings on the swing set to go all the way around and not realizing that the whole set would tip over because the posts weren’t cemented to the ground.

5. Exploring the sewers of my neighborhood through a large cement tube that exited into what I am now sure was a filthy creek but then just seemed like a creek.

6. Crossing a large woods and even larger golf course into a crime-ridden neighborhood to get to a candy store.

7. Trying to learn how to do a back handspring by flinging myself backward and hoping for the best.

8. Being so obsessed with throwing myself into the ocean that the back of my bathing suit was hooked on a dog leash attached to my mom’s beach chair. (I’m sure somebody would call the police about that today.)

These reckless behaviors only escalated as I got older, and they broadened in geographical scope. Until one day I found myself standing alone in Algeria, pondering how to cross the Sahara. It was before cell phones and the Internet, so I had really stepped off the edge of the world. Before I left on that year long trip across Africa, I had told my parents there was a train across that bleak white expanse of desert. There wasn’t and isn’t. At that moment in Algeria, terror seeping into every cell in my body, if I had known about the concept of helicopter parents I would have thought, “Where can I get me some of those? This is exactly the kind of thing they would have advised against.”

I ended up hitchhiking with a caravan of men running cars down to Niger. As I look back on it now, I realize that my survival of that solo trip across Africa can mostly be attributed to the grace of God and dumb luck.

As a person with a high tolerance for risk, I think about risk-taking a lot. What’s too much? And the question I rarely hear asked, what’s not enough? What’s the balance between just staying alive and taking on some risk to thrive?

I explored this idea in The Berenson Schemes series. Jack Berenson is a risk-averse kid with parents who are decidedly risk-takers. At first glance, it would appear that Jack is the sensible one. He’s the model citizen. He’s in the right. But is he really? Or do both extremes come with their own unique set of problems?

I have recently discovered that the sailing program no longer sends children sailing in the dark. My first thought was, that’s a shame. My second thought was, I bet none of those kids who only sail in the daylight will ever end up hitchhiking across the Sahara.

I’m still not sure if that’s good or bad.


3 thoughts on “The Art of Risk

  1. Barbara Younger

    My parents weren't risk takers (although they were creative and definitely not dull), so it's only been in recent years that I've been questioning what sort of risks I should take (or maybe that's the point–we aren't to spend a lot of time considering the risks-we just take them). Anyway, I'm hoping Jack's experiences in the Berenson Schemes will help me become bolder!

  2. Linden Mc

    This post made me laugh. My sisters and I washed out hair out at the sewer pipe (hey, running water is like a mountain stream, right?). We traveled all over our neighborhood and beyond, sampling whatever “fruit” grew on trees (I remember crunching on something marble-sized and purple that I have never named, nor seen since).

  3. Lisa Kline

    Hilarious post, Lisa! The risk taking of your youth led to a fearlessness that I envy and would love to read about from the safety of my easy chair. Can't wait to read your book.

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