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Why We Should All Take Risks With Our Kids

On a family trip to the Amazon Basin in Ecuador, our guide Milton introduced us to a remote body of water known as Piranha Lake. Beneath the placid surface lurked poisonous snakes and electric eels as well as the lake's eponymous fish with ugly teeth.

When Milton announced, "It's time to swim," he wasn't joking. Seeing our reluctance, he said piranhas were mostly vegetarian. Except in times of drought, none of these creatures would likely want to eat us.

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My husband Mark, our two tweens and I made our way to the front of the motorized canoe and eventually mustered the courage to leap into the murky water. Risky? Slightly. But that's how it goes when we're away from home.

The act of deciding to leave home removes us from a cautious mindset and opens us to pulse-racing experiences that don't typically happen in our day-to-day lives. While in a different time zone we often step outside of our comfort zone, too. For children raised in a chronically vigilant society, this can be a good thing.

On my solo travels across Europe at 20 years old, I did some wacky stuff: Once, without a place to stay, I spent the night at a drunk train conductor's house in France. Another time I swam topless for a 1/2 mile through a busy boat lane in the Saronic Gulf. I wanted to get to a small deserted island on the other side. I came back hours later sunburned and dehydrated. I wasn't dead, but I was a lot smarter.

I was so desperate to duck out of (my mom's) over-protective clutch that I walked right to the edge of stupid and stepped off.

My family never traveled when I was a child. My mother regarded any risk as something that would likely do me in. "Careful or you'll get yourself killed!" Consequently, I never learned how to balance risk with safety. I was so desperate to duck out of her over-protective clutch that I walked right to the edge of stupid and stepped off.

I never say to my kids, "Careful. You're going to hurt yourself if you do that." I say to them, "Think about what you're doing and make a good decision."

When we're on the road, we probably think a little less. But at least we think, as with Piranha Lake: OK, Milton said the water is safe and he takes tourists here all the time. Then we ask a few questions. "Hey, Milton. Has anyone ever been eaten by a piranha on your watch? No? OK. Let's swim."

It's good for kids to experiment with boundaries with their parents in a different environment. What do you do when the rental bikes don't come with helmets or the only ride up the hill to the hotel is in the back of a pick-up truck? Children end up learning what is comfortable and safe, what is slightly risky but OK or necessary to try, and what really isn't safe at all. It works in reverse, too.

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Three years ago while climbing the ironically named Happy Mountain in Peru, we encountered a series of Jack-in-the-Beanstalk-style ladders that extended up into the trees and out of sight. They were slippery and terrifying, and as my kids flew up the first one without a worry, I stood on the bottom and shouted. "I'll wait down here."

Then, from above the tree line, I heard my son's thin voice shouting back. "You can do this Mom. It's not that bad." And it wasn't.

Image via Sandra A. Miller

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