I don’t know about you, but when two things happen to me in a week that both strike the same chord, I pay attention. My recent “wake up call,” if you will, was about safety. The first piece that came to my attention was the fact that generally speaking, I’m not a big risk-taker. For the most part I like to play by the rules, go along and get along, and stay out of trouble. But recently, my husband and I had been taking a leadership course designed to help us think and step outside the box, and I ran smack into the issue of safety. I realized that more often than I knew, I was taking action and making choices from a default place of just wanting to feel safe.

Well, what’s the problem with that? You may ask. While not a problem, per se, living with safety as one’s highest value can be a bit limiting. Safety, at this modern juncture, is not about staying out of the mouths of predators. The trick of biology, and perhaps conditioning as well, is that we often feel as if we are in grave, grave danger—as if a saber-toothed tiger is stalking us—when we are actually perfectly safe. I experience this phenomenon often when I get up to speak in front of a crowd. I feel like I’m about to die, but in reality I am just standing in front of a group of people, riddled with anxiety, safe as can be.

The second thing about safety that I noticed was how ridiculously often I was imploring my young child to, “Be safe!” I also found myself overusing the cousin statement, “That’s not safe,” to rein in my kid’s behavior. But is it really unsafe? Often it is not so unsafe as to warrant the complete and total suspension of the activity, whatever it may be. Around the same time, a friend modeled some nuanced language around some daredevil climbing her son was engaging in: instead of using my well-worn refrain to get down and, “Be safe,” she asked her son, “Would you like some help practicing how to climb safely?” Hmmm, more food for thought.

The topics of safety and risk reminded me of one my favorite quotes from the wise and renowned professor, Leo Buscaglia: “To laugh is to risk appearing the fool. To weep is to risk being called sentimental. To reach out to another is to risk involvement. To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self. To place your ideas, your dreams before the crowd, is to risk being called naive. To love is to risk not being loved in return. To live is to risk dying. To hope is to risk despair, and to try is to risk failure. But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.”

I know in my heart that there is no true safety. Perusing my parenting bookshelves turned up the titles listed below—with good advice in all three. At first glance they may seem to contradict. But in the end conflicting advice may be the wisest of all—with balance as the ultimate goal: Stay connected with your children and let them be. Treat them with tenderness, and have rowdy pillow-fights. Hold on tight….and also let go.

The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It, by Anthony T.DeBenedet, M.D. and Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.
The Idle Parent: Why Laid-back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids, by Tom Hodgkinson
Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D. and Gabor Mate, M.D.

First printed in the Sept./Oct. issue of Parent & Family