Reckless Parents; Strong Kids
“If they were in France, Mr. Sweeney would deserve to have his children taken away,” stated the mayor of a small French alpine village in Le Figaro. a French online magazine.
The headlines all over the world painted a picture of me as a reckless, publicity seeking, egomaniac American. This shitstorm came after my two oldest children – then age 9 and 11 – were swept across the “Couloir de la Mort” on France’s highest mountain – Mt. Blanc. Kids in the corridor of death? A recipe for disaster, right?
Not exactly. The truth is a bit different than the headlines suggested.
The climb up Mt. Blanc’s normal route according to the Petzl Foundation, has roughly the same risk as driving in France. It’s not a reckless activity, and like getting in a car, it’s not completely without risk either. (See Petzl’s analysis at the end of this blog).
My friend and occasional climbing partner (who was with us) is one of the most experienced mountain guides in the world with 14 Everest Summits to his credit. We had a second guide also helping us. I’ve been climbing for almost 30 years, and my kids and I trained extensively for that climb.
My son PJ came up with the idea when we moved them to Chamonix, and I was thrilled when he asked if he could do it.
The “avalanche” was sliding snow perhaps four or five inches deep that rolled over my boots but swept the kids off their feet. Because we used proper safety techniques and equipment, the kids were in very little danger. But it was scary, no doubt.
But this isn’t about the risk – it’s about the backlash and the knee-jerk reaction that doing something unique, risky or different with your children can cause. Many of my friends have met with the same reaction; Joe DeSena who started Spartan Races now holds a kids Death Race at his farm in Vermont. People call him crazy.
It’s hard for many parents to hear the backlash, but that’s exactly why parents must have the courage to follow their own path.
Why all the controversy?
The real story here is the proliferation of bull-dozer parenting – the idea that parents should plow the smoothest life possible for their kids. This removal of stress and difficulty, often called helicopter parenting, emerged as affluence in the US grew. Naturally, parents and educators wanted to protect children from every harm they could. What they failed to realize is too much protection is just as bad as too little.
What over-protecting our children has done over the past 25 years has resulted in the highest incidence of anxiety and phobias ever recorded. Suicide rates, especially among boys, are up over 300%. Many caregivers robbed children of a critical developmental experience that teaches empowerment, independence and confidence.
Kids need an adventure education, even if you don’t live in the mountains.
They need to learn independence in decision making, they need to learn risk taking, and most importantly they need to learn that they control how they feel, act and see the world. They have to learn by trial and error. That’s how they develop critical connection in the brain.
There’s a method of parenting I’ve used for the past 10 years that enables those connections to develop. It’s what you should use if you want confident, happy and positive kids.
All three of my kids are thriving with this parenting style, but let’s look at my oldest. My daughter is 17 years old and very happy. She has a great group of friends and does some awesome adventures with me every year. She’s rock climbed, skied and adventured globally since she was four years old. She just scored 99.2% in her college entrance exams and has her choice of great college opportunities.
How did this parenting style help her get there?
She learned the value of hard work, she learned how to deal with pressure, she practiced (a lot) to get good at things she thought would benefit her, she sought out help and listened with curiosity to advice. All the characteristics that make up a great adventurer or explorer or traveler and all the things that make a great leader can be taught in your back yard, city streets, or country roads.
If you employ the right parenting style, you can help your children build critical connections in their brain to their courage center and decision making areas.
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Three ways to parent
Experts call the three parenting styles Authoritarian, Authoritative and Permissive. The data show that one is significantly more successful in raising happy and successful kids.
Authoritarian – this is how I was raised. The familiar threats of “Not under my roof,” or “My way or the Highway,” speak to the inflexibility and drill-sergeant like style that doesn’t accommodate different personality types, different learning styles or speeds or offer a collaborative approach. It’s also the most common, especially among blue-collar parents who only know what they learned from their parents and seldom change with the times. It’s also a recipe for rebellion and a combative parenting journey.
Permissive is laissez-faire. Let the kids do whatever they want and they will be just fine. “I’m too busy or stressed with my own life to try to run someone else’s” is a common lament of the permissive parent. It’s also very common in separated parenting relationship where parents compete to be their child’s best friend. Or in weak parents who don’t have the courage to deny their children another scoop of ice cream.
Authoritative – this is the style that leads to confident and self-regulating kids. Give them guidelines, set limits and encourage independence. Create challenges that make them learn to decide and that help them get out of their comfort zone. Purposefully add little stresses to their life so they figure out how to adapt to them
This is how we raised three amazing teenagers. Like all kids they wanted to have ice cream every day for dessert, but we didn’t give it to them. Like most kids, they wanted to be on their phone or Gameboy for long car rides, but we set limits. Like many kids they wanted to wear polka dots with stripes at one point, so we let them. Like most kids, they moaned and whined at getting woken at 4:30 am but then were amazed when they caught a mountain sunrise.
We created boundaries and punishments for breaking those rules and stuck to them. We tried more to be their leaders, like a good mountain guide, rather than either being a dictator or trying to make them happy or be their best friend. Despite the many various co-parenting situations in today’s world, parents can stick together on this and their kids will thrive.
“It’s easier to build strong children than to fix broken men and women.”
– Frederick Douglas
If you want confident kids make sure they know who is in charge at all times and setting the rules, but that it’s up to them to do the actual work and decision-making within those parameters. Encourage dialogue and make them create a justification if they want to do something you may not have done as a child.
They have to do what they find uncomfortable and figure things out on their own. Soon you’ll have strong, courageous kids capable of becoming well adjusted and successful adults.
Statistics on Climbing Mt. Blanc via the Gouter Route
The Petzl Foundation reported on data between 1990 and 2011 for this specific climbing route to get to the summit of Mt Blanc. They found that approximately 225,000 climbers attempted the climb via the “Gouter Route.”
Climbers have to cross the infamous Corridor of Death on the way up and the way back down – that’s 450,000 crossings during that time period.
49 solo climbers died between 1990 and 2001. For teams of belayed climbing partners, meaning they used a safety rope, the death rate was 25. This means there were 74 total fatalities on the route over 21 years.
If you are roped up (like my kids and I were) the death rate is 25 per 450,000 trips or .0056%. Compare that with car fatalities in France which are 5.2 fatalities for each 100,000 drivers, or .0052%.
While not exactly an apples to apples comparison, it paints a data-based picture of the real risk of climbing the mountain via that route. The bottom line is that knowing that risk – I’d take anyone I know and love up that route to show them the beauty of that mountain. I’d just make sure they were trained and we did things right. Picked the best equipment, chose the right time of day, understood the weather, etc.