Risk assessment – A personal decision

I love it when people challenge my thoughts and ideas. Each time they do I learn something new and am challenged to think about the world and my actions in a different light.

One man responded to a blog post I had written about cycling to the ends of the world. “I just don’t see how subjecting kids to this odyssey of self-discovery or whatever it was could possibly benefit them in the long run,” he wrote. “That’s just irresponsible.”

He went on to say, “I always viewed [your journey] as risking almost certain disaster every day, for a prolonged period of time. A really unacceptable level of risk.”

It’s funny – I never considered that we were facing “almost certain disaster.”  Certainly not every day and certainly not for prolonged periods of time.  I felt our journey was entirely an acceptable level of risk.

Not only did I feel our journey from Alaska to Argentina was not particularly dangerous or risky, I felt it was an awesome way for my children to live their childhood years.  I felt the benefits they would gain from a cycling/traveling lifestyle outweighed whatever negatives they would lose.

Cycling on a foggy morning

For every choice we make in life, we opt out of something else. Sometimes those decisions are easy; sometimes they are hard. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of those choices. In the end, we have to make a decision. We have to choose for one and against another. That’s just the way it is.

We could have chosen to stay in Idaho and the boys would have played on soccer teams and swam on swim teams. They would have eaten lunch in the school cafeteria and ridden the bus to school and raced outside to play tether ball at recess. They would have had sleepovers and played video games with friends. They would have been part of chess club and boy scouts.

Those things aren’t bad.

Or we could, and did, take off and travel the world and allow the boys to climb on Mayan pyramids and Incan temples. They could swim with sea lions and scuba dive with turtles. Fly over the Nazca Lines, see the mysterious Ica Stones and conehead skulls, see ships rise and fall in the Panama Canal.

They could see real life penguins and guanacos and rheas and armadillos and foxes and bison and musk ox and big horn sheep and reindeer and iguanas in their natural habitats. They could stay with indigenous families in the Bolivian highlands and with migrant workers in Mexico. They could go sand surfing and real surfing. They could eat lomo saltado and carne asado and drink mate.

But these things came at a price.


Everything comes at a price. Whenever we choose TO DO something, we choose NOT TO DO something else. The trick is to choose wisely and spend our time doing the things that will most benefit us.

In the end we feel that, overall, our choice was the right one. Our sons have amazing life experiences that will benefit them tremendously throughout life. The important thing is that they grow up into capable human beings who can contribute to society – and that is exactly what we feel they will do.

As our discussion progressed, this man chimed in again. “Your “risk-reward” meter is calibrated much differently than most people’s are. Again, I say you took on a really, really risky venture, and got through it without anything catastrophic. My risk-reward meter says that you were probably really, really lucky.”

I love that idea – the risk-reward meter. We each calibrate our meter based on our life experiences. We see those things we know and feel comfortable with closer to the reward end of the meter. The unknown, and therefore scary, things get placed at the risky end. My meter looks completely different from yours.

I would feel extremely uncomfortable if one of my boys decided he wanted to play American football. Ouch – talk about risky! I had twelve-year-old students that RACED on dirt bikes – like motorized motorcycle things that go a bajillion miles an hour? Gads – that scares the bejeezus outta me! I’ve also had elementary school kids who hunted with guns – you know those metal things that go *kaboom* and can kill people. And animals?  Yeah those.

Those items are definitely on the risky end of my meter.

And yet I don’t judge those parents because I know that, according to their risk-reward meter, what the kids were doing was fine and the parents had taught them to be safe. I’m OK with that. I may say something like, “That is something I would never want to do, but good for you for allowing your kids to get out and experience life!”

Hotel in Colombia

My newfound ‘friend’ came back to the discussion one more time. “The fundamental issue is that your process of identifying and evaluating risks is quite different from mine.”

Is it really? Or are we both basing our evaluations on our own life experiences?  I would be willing to bet that Mario Andretti or Anderson Cooper’s risk-reward meters would look vastly different from mine.

And his.

Is my risk-reward meter more valid than yours? Is yours more accurate than mine? Does the fact that I encourage my kids to ride their bikes make me an irresponsible parent? Does the fact that your child plays American football show your judgment to be faulty?

We all see the world through glasses tinted by our experiences – and that’s not a bad thing.  I won’t judge you for the decisions you make, and I ask that you not judge me for mine.  Our decisions are both equally as valid – but are based on different risk-reward meters.

What would fail miserably on your own risk-reward meter that others wouldn’t think twice about?

Cycling Patagonia

*****This article is part of a series of articles on the dangers of travel.

How dangerous is family bike touring?

Life doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee

Risk Assessment – A personal decision

Isn’t bike touring dangerous?

Acceptable level of risk

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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16 Responses to Risk assessment – A personal decision

  1. Neil May 2, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    Spot on in your analysis. Most people discount the risks that are part of their everyday lives, and overstate risks that aren’t.

    People who ride bikes don’t find biking particularly dangerous. People who drive cars don’t find driving particularly dangerous. Both these activities can kill you, but it’s not overly likely.

  2. Jonathan R May 2, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    Excellent article. I wish your habit of not judging other people’s risk assessments was more prevalent.

  3. Rain May 2, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    Well spoken! I think my risk-reward meter is very much in tune with yours – football, dirt bike racing, hunting…scary as hell. I would also add xenophobia under the high-risk end of the meter. Cycle on, family on bikes!!

  4. cagey May 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    Everyone’s definition of risk is different. Period.

    I found out as a new mother who preferred to co-sleep with my babies that I would need to turn a deaf ear to folks’ opinions on my own assessments of risk. 🙂

    I am not sure that I would want to take off on such an adventure as your family did. However, I would never judge you for it and rather respect you for taking the so-called “risks” to give your sons the adventure of a lifetime.

  5. Erin May 2, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    Absolutely! I think I’ve had nearly this exact same conversation a number of different times, with various people that seem to think that long and remote wilderness journeys in Alaska = daredevil. (and now we have very young children along as well). For me, biking along a busy road seems more dangerous than taking a small inflatable raft across an ocean bay – because I understand the latter risks much better.

  6. Annie Andre May 5, 2011 at 5:14 am #

    Very well said,
    I’ve lived a suburban lifestyle with the kids for 14 years. Now many of those people think i’m crazy for having traveled for a year and homeschooling.

    They judge based on their life and if it’s different than it must be wrong, bad or risky.. It gets frustrating trying to explain and ultimately i have stopped. Luckily i’ve found i’m not alone since the internet makes it possible to connect with other like minded people like yourself.

    Thanks for the well put article

  7. Vickie May 5, 2011 at 5:19 am #

    This is very well-said. the idea comes up in lots of discussions I have had about unschooling. Other people think it’s risky not to send the kids to school, bringing up all kinds of what-ifs. But I think making kids go to school is risky for lots of other reasons. It is so interesting how it’s different for everyone. This is a good reminder not to judge others.

  8. Heidi May 5, 2011 at 5:48 pm #

    Great discussion! I think you said it all very well. We all take risks each day. We all choose which risks to take based on our own experience. Interestingly enough, I agree … football, hunting, etc. seems risky:)

  9. Mister Mike May 6, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    Spot on response to your critic. Risk is variable and must always include common sense. Your adventure was not the same as an expedition through Sudan or Iraq. Nor was it like all those teenagers each year trying to sail solo around the world. It was not even like the common parental experience of giving your child the keys to the car. Risk is all around and your family has demonstrated that learning to cooperate as a team; endure difficult physical challenges; and take on commitments are major life lessons. We should all be so fortunate. Thank you for the continuing story.

  10. Brennan May 8, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    “I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” – Jack London

  11. cycling apparel May 8, 2011 at 10:22 pm #

    We all see the world through glasses tinted by our experiences – and that’s not a bad thing. I won’t judge you for the decisions you make, and I ask that you not judge me for mine.

  12. nancy May 22, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    Thank you all! I love the idea of a risk/reward meter and think it says it all!

  13. Clark Vandeventer December 18, 2011 at 11:27 pm #

    Everything in life is a trade off!


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