Me, My Kid, And Risk Aversion


Photo via Wiki Commons

There was an article in the Washington Post last week about middle schoolers and risk taking. Essentially, it said: in order for children to morph into adults, they have to take risks–defined as anything that takes them outside their comfort zone: crazy hair, weird clothes, a new activity–or scarier alternatives like drugs, sex and alcohol. Kids are going to take some sort of risk whether you like it or not; that’s what makes them grow into adults.

I dug into my memory, looking for confirmation of this argument in my own experience, and I came up blank.

I have never liked risk. I have always been a homebody who wants things to stay familiar and comfortable. My mother had to plant a boot on my butt and make me get my driver’s license, for goodness sake. And I was so intimidated by walking into fast food restaurants and asking for job applications, she had to issue an ultimatum before I would do it.

Even these days I loathe risk. There’s a lot of it involved in writing. The obvious is the risk of rejection, but there are many others: the risk of making oneself vulnerable to criticism (can you say “reviews”?), the risk of intellectual property violation, and so on. To me, risk is a nasty but unavoidable side effect of the drive to create.

Hence my continuing problems with anxiety.

Miscellaneous July 018 smallBut all that is just navel-gazing. The reason any of this is blog-worthy is that I have a nine year old who is already broody and moody, teetering at the edge of the adolescent abyss. It seems ludicrous to suggest such a thing, the distance between 9 and 13 being almost half the length of his life thus far. But he’s definitely changing. More to the point, he’s me with an XY instead of two Xs.

In this case, that means he does not like risk. Which is defined as “anything new that does not involve a video game or a mythology-spinoff book.”

He’s eligible to be an altar server this year, but he doesn’t want to do it. When I asked why not, he said he didn’t want to be up in front where everyone was looking at him. I pointed out that nobody is supposed to be looking at the altar servers. I pointed out that he likes acting, where people are supposed to be looking at him. He did not answer. (Whatever that means.)

I don’t like to make the kids do things they don’t want to do, but in this case we thought it was too important not to. This is entry-level ministerial work: service to the people of God. So last night I took him to altar server training.

And you know what? Once they got to the part where they were learning about the items used at Mass–once they got to pass around the huge Lectionary and the heavy, gilded Book of the Gospels and touch the paten and chalice–I could see interest in my son’s  eyes.

That is basically the shape of my own life: parental foot on butt, shoving me out of the nest; insides quivering with terror; followed, at some point (not always right away) by the discovery that I’m having fun.

Blog-sweet boysI had to be forced to take risks, and Alex is shaping up to be the same. In fact, I think I need to harden myself to the necessity of being the foot-on-butt. My risk-averse personality caused me to play it safe far more than I should have in adolescence. Instead of venturing out, I built a safe cocoon around myself. And when it was time to fly the coop I had to be kicked out of the nest, because I didn’t want to leave home. It took me until I was twenty-five to learn to be friends with a man, independent of romantic entanglements, and until I was almost forty to be able to interact with liturgical music colleagues as, yanno, an adult and not a fan girl. I always knew I came into my own much later than I should, but until now it never really occurred to me why.

So maybe I have to stuff that I-don’t-want-my-kid-to-suffer empathy into an iron box and shove it in some deep dark corner of my soul for the next few years. Maybe I have to force my mini-me to take some of the risks I was too scared to take when I was his age. And maybe…just maybe…I can spare him some of what I have suffered because of my own risk-aversion.