Jumping In: Modeling Risk for Our Kids

Last year, my family went wake surfing for the first time. My children and I sat on a boat in the middle of Table Rock Lake while the six other adults with us surfed. I watched everyone else while I clutched my 6-month-old baby to my chest. When my turn to surf came, I very tentatively handed my baby off to my husband. I climbed to the back of the boat–and stood. Stuck. Frozen with fear.

I grew up with a mom who wouldn’t have jumped in. In fact, she was on that boat with us, and would never have jumped in to surf, too. It is important to acknowledge that my mother is a strong, brave lady. Probably the toughest person I know. And it is beyond brave to honor your own boundaries, especially when everyone around you is pressuring you to give in. So, I don’t bring this up to disparage her in any way. I do bring it up for two reasons.

The first reason is to point out that fear can have a true paralyzing effect. There is a huge difference between “this makes me nervous, and I’m just not sure” and “I can’t move or breathe.” Just like my mom, if you’re feeling that second feeling: honor your boundaries! Say no. Sit this one out.  

The second reason is to say that our fear is often taught. When I saw my mother sit on the sidelines, I felt that I should, too. I felt her fear. I didn’t know that I could or should jump in. My boundaries weren’t mine, but hers. I didn’t know how to evaluate risks or identify my own fears. I simply sat on the sidelines with her.

We have talked before about avoiding phrases like “be careful” and encouraging our kids to take risks.  But we haven’t really touched on the way that we teach our kids to evaluate risks when they watch us. 

As I stood on the back of that boat, I knew that climbing back in the boat was not an option. I would send a clear message to my son: my fear is too big, and I’m letting it win this time. What would he do when it was his turn to jump in the water and surf? Would he jump in, unafraid? Would he climb back on board and sit with his mama? Even more than I feared the water, I feared that my actions would drive his. It is ok for him to decide that surfing isn’t for him. It is not ok for him to decide not to surf just because Mommy didn’t surf.

So, I jumped in. And I taught my son a valuable lesson in perseverance, as I tried–and failed repeatedly–to surf. I eventually got up, and now, I jump in without hesitation. My son does, too.

I’m not the first mom to wake surf. I’m not the first to take risks. But it is a big deal to me to have taken the risk, when I didn’t know that I could take risks! It is a big deal that I’m teaching my son to evaluate risks and to jump in to the experiences that life brings him. It is also a big deal that my mother honored her own boundaries and made the choices that were best for her.  

Britt is a former nomad, who happily put down roots in the Kansas City suburbs to start her own family close to her parents and siblings. After three professional degrees and a brief stint as an elementary teacher with Teach for America, Britt now spends 40 hours a week working in the legal world. In what little free time she has left over, she pretends to do yoga, installs toilets, cans vegetables, quilts, entertains family and friends, and seeks adventure around KC and beyond with her two favorite boys. Though she and her husband, David, are new to parenting their 8 month old son, Benja, they already agree that they love him more than coffee. They just not-so-secretly hope that no one ever makes them choose between the two.