The One Topic American Parents Need to Discuss but Aren't

Whether the Kaufmans were foolish or not isn't even the main point.

Posted Apr 10, 2014

By Amy Fusselman

What is an appropriate level of risk for parents to expose their children to? This is the issue that is being played out in the media in the discussion around Charlotte Kaufman and her husband Eric’s decision to take their two daughters, ages 1 and 3, on a month long trip from Mexico to New Zealand on the family sail boat. Nine hundred miles off the coast of Mexico, after the youngest daughter fell ill and Eric was unable to steer the boat, the family had to be rescued by the US Navy and the Coast Guard.

Thankfully, the family survived the trip. But can the Charlotte and Eric withstand the storm of disapproval over their parenting choice? The New York Times covered the rescue online with a front page story, quoting Charlotte’s brother as saying he had refused to send the family off because “he saw this coming.”  

What’s most interesting to me about this conversation is not the vehemence leveled at the parents, which is predictable, but in some of the language around what an acceptable risk really is. It is clearly very difficult for adults to articulate what an acceptable risk is regarding children. I believe this is in part because a reasonable assessment of risk, in regards to our children, is really not something we Americans are very good at. What’s acceptable is: no risk. 

A quote in the New York Times piece from Ashley Merryman, a co-author of a parenting book called Nurtureshock, sums up our cultural quandary beautifully: “I am very much anti-Bubble Wrap and think we should be giving our kids safe risks but that doesn’t mean exposing them to actual risks.” 

What is a “safe risk” that is not an “actual risk”? I thought a lot about questions like this in my journey to an adventure playground in Tokyo, where the motto is, “Play Freely at Your Own Risk.” Adventure playgrounds, which are just coming into our cultural consciousness in the US, were first designed in 1943. They are un-landscaped outdoor spaces where children are encouraged to take risks—to sometimes play with fire, literally—and where an adult playworker is there to facilitate children’s play but not to direct it. Children generally have access to tools and other donated scraps. In the US we have only a very few of these spaces, most notably the venerable 34-year-old Adventure Playground at Berkeley Marina in Berkeley, CA. 

Adventure playgrounds are not an anomaly and they are not new. There are currently about a thousand adventure playgrounds in Europe. They have never caught on in this country. Why? Because we have an all or nothing approach to risk assessment. This mindset, in many ways, makes us, and our children, less safe, not more. 

Regardless of whether or not the Kaufmans did the right thing in taking their trip, we should refrain from making the cultural conversation about whether or not they should be hung in the town square. American parents should welcome any opportunities for a level-headed discussion of appropriate risk and their children. That we seem unable to engage in that is telling for how emotional, and how deeply entrenched, the heart of this issue really is. 

Amy Fusselman's forthcoming book is Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted and Afraid to Die (Houghton Mifflin, January 2015). Follow her work on her website