The Tale of a Fence, a 6 Year Old and Risk Assessment

One fine evening our family was enjoying the lovely spring weather outside. We were planting flowers, riding bikes and playing basketball. Then I noticed my six year old daughter sitting atop our four foot high chain link fence. The fact that she’d climbed up there wasn’t surprising – she’s always climbing trees, counters, and rock walls. But what happened next made me stop and think about how small moments of truth – our choice of action and how we invest our time with our children to help them think through the implications of risk – can really shape how they grow up to approach risk in a logical way vs. like a crying six year old.  5660827_s

What happened next was not a surprise. She started to get upset and began to call to us to help her get down from the fence. Then the crying began. This child has no ordinary set of lungs. And she has no problem being clear on her desired level of support, “Help me get down, now! I’m scared!”  Guess what? We didn’t do it. My husband and I stood on opposite sides of the fence. And as we looked across at each other, both with hands outstretched but not touching our daughter, we both knew this was the moment to share something more important with her.

It would have been much, much easier for us to pick her up or lend her a hand, but what is it that she likely would have learned? Perhaps that her parents will get her out of any precarious position she is in? But what if she learned how to get down herself from the fence? What is she learned to think her way out of the situation to safety? More importantly, could we get her to understand how to evaluate risk at six years old?

It was then that we began to try and reason with her. Have you ever tried to reason with a scared, crying, and loud six year old? It will test the patience of anyone.

  • First thing was to get her to see that she was safe and steady on the fence and not in immediate danger. (Loud crying still ensued.)
  • Second, we asked her to look at where her feet were at the moment – wedged into the fence to support her. She realized by assessing the situation that her feet where securing her in a position of safety and they were closer to the ground than when she easily jumps from the tree. (Still some sniffles and whimpers but the decibel level came down a bit.)
  • Third, she needed to make a decision on what to do next. Do nothing and sit on the fence all night (loud cries of despair), jump from a height that she could easily handle (whimpers of anticipated bruised knees were heard), or think of another way to get down that doesn’t involve her parents’ hands to lift her off the fence.

She jumped. In truth, she had a lot of options to explore. Most likely she probably would have persuaded (conned) her little brother to get her a patio chair to climb down onto. But she didn’t. Whatever it was that we did – either trying to help her apply logic to the situation or making the hard reality clear that we weren’t going to lift her down – she was motivated to act. And perhaps that’s the key lesson for this six year old – and for all of us. While I’d like to think she’s advanced enough to have learned all the lessons we shared with her, in the end she made a decision and acted upon it.

Life is full of fences that require us to make a decision: Go forward. Go backward. Sit tight. I think all too often people get stuck and can’t act because they don’t take the time to understand the present level of danger, assess the situation, and then determine a course of action. What I most wanted my daughter to understand is that you need to think of the risk you may encounter with any big decision and determine if you can handle what may come from that action. And when (not if) you get into a sticky situation, learn to think your way through to a decision of action.

Two minutes later she was climbing back up and over the fence without hesitation. She probably didn’t ingest our parental words of wisdom, but she did survive the risk. And perhaps next time she will be able to determine her level of risk tolerance and make a good decision more quickly… and with less crying.

How do you feel about assessing and evaluating risk? Would you have taken the same steps if it was your kid? Please share your thoughts below, or direct message me on LinkedIn.

Colleen Betsill, Veritas Services Marketing