Where’s The Risk?

Every parent has a chill waiting to put its foot on their heart. We live with it from the moment of our greatest warmth – the birth of our children. The hot, impossible, molecular, magic of it all delivers the greatest stake a human being can know. And with it the greatest risk.

The chill lives in a simple question. What if…?

Just the thought passes a cloud over the sun.

I remember when I first felt the chill. I set up the capsule in the car outside the hospital, with the world still ringing in my ears. Sally folded Mahala in and buckled. I got behind the wheel and we pulled up to the exit of the carpark. I leant forward and looked for a safe time to pull out.

A safe time…

What could possibly be safe about bearing this bundle of breath and eyelids into traffic?

With Perth drivers?

Then there was the news on TV – that parade of the abhorrent. I remember watching mothers carrying babies through the snow out of Sarajevo. It was unbearable. Searing. How could I watch that? Hell, I was tearing up at toilet-paper ads.

It got easier over time. The rawness of it all eased.  But the chill has never fully departed. I feel it at the edges of things. Reaching for that little hand in Myer and catching air. Waiting for a text from my 18-year-old at 1.45am. Trailers for Taken. Liam Neeson, you bastard.

We don’t talk about it much. We talk more about the little sufferances and rewards that occupy our days. Milk in the car seat. Hand drawn cards. But learning to live with the chill, not letting it take us over or spilling into our children, is one of the great challenges of parenthood.

It plays out in the way we think about risk.  The world, we say to ourselves, is a more dangerous place than it was when we were kids. A solo trip to the deli for a 10-year-old is enough to make us perform emotional gymnastics with degrees of difficulty that past generations of parents seemed immune to.

Why? Who knows. We blame the media, Big Insurance, the risk management industry, and lawyers. But to my way of thinking the ‘why’ is less important than ‘what next’.

Rather than trying to shut down the chill (good luck with that one), how do we manage it?

One useful strategy comes to us from an unlikely source. The risk management industry.

There is a lot of anger with the risk management industry. People blame it for the culture of risk aversion that popular wisdom claims has taken over the world. But are we really risk averse? We roll our families into life and death situations on the Kwinana Freeway every day. We make lifestyle choices that increase the chance of cancer.

Risk averse, or risk selective?

Back to the risk management industry. Let me introduce you to the ISO, an organisation devoted to creating international standards for products, services and systems, and to providing solutions to global challenges along the way.

They are a Geneva based NGO with a membership of 161 national standards bodies. You may remember them from such classics as ISO 2157, which specifies the nominal diameters for the working parts of dental rotary instruments.

Good times.

Back in 2009 the ISO turned its attention to the risk management industry. It’s exciting, I know, but bear with me. Experts from around the world came together and were given cucumber sandwiches and a challenge – build a global framework for managing risk.

The result was the provocatively named ISO 31,000.

Their first question, and probably the hardest, was to define risk.

Is risk a list of conceivable disasters? The likelihood of injury?  Democratic elections in a country seduced by reality television and the common belief that Australia is a small state left of New Mexico?

Our friends at ISO, after many sandwich triangles, came up with an answer. Risk, they worked out, is the effect of uncertainty on objectives. Think about that for a moment – the effect of uncertainty on objectives.

A risk is something that makes your objectives uncertain.

Why is that important? Because it forces us to ask ourselves what our objectives are when we think about risk. And that changes everything. The question is not what can go wrong? It is not could someone conceivably be injured? The question is, what are we trying to achieve?

This has ramifications for school excursion and workplace Christmas parties. But, for now, let’s think about it as parents.

What are the risks to our children that we want, need, to manage? First question; what are our objectives for our sons’ and daughters’ childhoods?

Yes, we want them to be safe. But that is not all. What else do we want for them? We want them to be healthy. To feel connected and loved. To develop the resilience that a messy world will require. To learn that they can overcome their fears. That they are active agents in the world, not its victims.

What else?

The risks to our children are the things that make those objectives uncertain. Can you feel the chill retreating? Our job as parents is bigger, and more exhilarating, than finding the course of least injury. It is to maximise opportunities, not just to mitigate against threats.

It is often said that every child needs to feel safe to thrive. And I believe that is true. But I also believe that every child needs opportunities to feel brave. That every child has a right to live beyond the shadow of the chill, and grow up knowing that they can stand up in the world.