Parental rights and risk management

This photo probably wouldn’t catch your attention unless you knew that the rider is a 13-year-old kid, a boy who was killed this past week racing his motorcycle at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  He was killed when he fell from his motorcycle and was struck by another biker–a 12-year-old.  Naturally, a bulk of the cyber-comments on this story seem to be along the lines of “How could any parent let their child take on this kind of risk?”  I can’t say I disagree with those comments.  This seems like a highly risky activity not appropriate for children.

But kids do risky things quite regularly.  Yesterday evening I went to our local high school football game.  It was an enjoyable game, but there were injuries, as there usually are at football games.  I wondered to myself what kind of society allows its children to play games that require an ambulance to be parked near the end zone, with paramedics on hand?  What kind of parents allow this?  Apparently parents like me, since my boys have played tackle football.

This past summer my two oldest boys (18 and 16) went on a river rafting trip with a church youth group.  Apparently the water was high, and it was quite a harrowing experience for some of the boys.  I wasn’t really enthusiastic about my boys going on the trip.  I have to say I don’t see a lot of difference between dodging bolders in white water and dodging cars on the freeway, but we usually don’t approve of youth activities to dodge cars on the freeway.  I’m not sure why we approve of river rafting.  Yes, it’s fun and exciting, and there is something to be said for facing fear and risk.  But is that sufficient?

I think this is a really tricky question from a political perspective.  I really don’t want the state telling me whether or not I can let me kids play football or go on river trips.  On the other hand, if there were a law prohibiting children from motorcycle racing, I would support it.  I don’t have any idea what kind of principle can be applied that would tell us when the state can appropriately step in and prohibit children from taking certain risks.  It does seem to be a weird outcome that pre-teens are allowed to race motorcycles at over 120 miles per hour, but required to wear a seat belt in a car they are not allowed to drive.

Young underdeveloped minds are not very good at making decisions about risk.  I used to live on a hill where young men would race their long boards down the hill in front of my house without helmets, demonstrating the human brain’s lack of capacity to protect itself.   Some of these same people never grow up, turning into adults who are constantly craving something dangerous to do.  I can understand enjoying the adrenaline rush that comes from undertaking active, risky activities (I have on many occasions gone downhill skiing faster than I should and without a helmet), but doesn’t maturity mean we realize there are other ways to find happiness in life than by putting one’s life at risk just for enjoyment?  Doesn’t allowing one’s children to take on these types of risks constitute a particularly harmful type of immaturity, and doesn’t it make sense for the state to play an active role in protecting children from the immaturity of their parents?

But to what extent?  Anyone have an answer?

8 thoughts on “Parental rights and risk management

  1. The Probability of serious/fatal accidents and Commercial self-interest?

    Coming from the alps, that’s how local interest/commerce and government try to handle risk. When I go white-water kayaking I know the level of risk I can handle and I’m willing to accept. The local valley authority assigns 1-5 grades to spots on the river. For a grade 5 rapid the guide clearly states: Swimming is no option. You will most probably drown. If you can’t roll in difficult situations you must circumvent this rapid. I certainly wouldn’t want my 10 year son to join me on a run on this river.

    For rafting/canyoning there’s only one regulation in place. The guide must have a licence. Again no guide will want my son in a raft running down the Imster Gorge. On the run he will eventually loose some adult clients (part of the fun game) but certainly he’s not interested to look for the head of a ten-year old in the waves. So basically these activities are measured for their risk-probability and then the government bets on the common sense of the people undertaking these activities.

    A really interesting development happens in the most popular tourist activities: climbing and skiing. For years there was a movement to make them safer. More anchors, more fixed ropes or better prepared slopes. The result was more serious and also fatal accidents. Now they’ve changed course. On the entry point to popular climbs you will find a sign asking you to make 5 chin-ups and the first section is deliberately harder than the rest of the climb. Better to know early you won’t make it to the top than exposed in 2.500m with no exit route. The same for skiing. They make the slope harder to navigate. So a beginner won’t even have the chance to reach 40-50km/h. He will fell earlier while taking up speed. And there’s skiing police to watch for totally drunken Dutch skiers 😉 Although their major risk is freezing because they fell asleep.

    So some smart limited government regulation can do a lot. The federal government isn’t needed. The local valleys have a commercial interest to not be know as death-valley.

    One funny remark: tourists won’t notice but there’s an unwritten agreement between local authorities and the press. If a fatal accident happens on an official slope it’s not reported. Hoteliers don’t want their guest to read such a story while eating breakfast. But if it happens offside let’s say by an avalanche it gets a big headline. Sort of a deadly reminder to stay on the slope.

  2. I feel that people who are unable to properly assess physical risks should be encouraged to take more risks, thereby eliminating them from the gene pool, eventually. This would include minors whose parents apparently are unable to assess the physical risks to their own children. If the parents are unable to see the hazard to their offspring, then all the better it’s nipped in the bud. Their loss also serves as a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

  3. I don’t want the State telling me what sports my kids (nowadays, grandkids) my participate in. Yes, I am saddened by the young rider’s death, but most young riders don’t die; in fact, they aren’t even seriously injured.
    Just think: there are people out there who think it should be illegal for kids to use firearms, even with adult supervision & proper safety gear. Once the camel’s nose is allowed under the tent flap, pretty soon you’ll have yourself a whole damned camel.

    1. I agree with what you are saying about the camel’s nose. I just think that kids have enough moral weight independent of their partents’ rights that they deserve some protection by the state (indeed, I think they deserve that protection before they are born, as well). But certainly it is an area that can easily lead to governmental over-reach.

  4. I heard that there are some parents who still cook meals for their kids – and we’re not talking about licensed professionals in the food service industry, but parents who haven’t taken a single state-sanctioned food safety course! I saw on the news last year that a young child… a YOUNG CHILD!… died from e. coli poisoning in a hamburger patty that his father “cooked” OUTSIDE!

    What kind of society allows their children to be exposed to deadly pathogens simply because of the “tradition” of eating in the home?

    We don’t want this to go too far. I really don’t want the state telling me whether or not I can let me kids play Wii or sleep on the couch. On the other hand, if there were a law prohibiting children from *eating* in their home, I would support it.

  5. OK, so now in addition to eating burgers, I’m going to have my 5-year-old cook them, too. I’m sure he can deal with lighting the grill and taking care of the burgers.

    While he is at it, I’ll just set a rifle in the back so he can pick us off a deer while he is cooking (we frequently get deer in our back yard). That would be a good experience for him. He can borrow a knife and skin the thing, too. Make us some venison burgers next time if he is a good enough shot.

    Gee, it is so nice that the state doesn’t have any interest in risky behaviors by children. Makes life so much simpler.

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