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The Article

I hate jerks. That’s probably why I can’t stand roller coasters. The up and down is bad enough, but the sudden jerks when you go around in a corkscrew just about do me in.

I was eleven when Canada’s Wonderland opened. Several of my friends’ parents had sold their farmland to make room for the park, and in exchange, they received free passes. I must have headed to Wonderland ten times in its opening year. I couldn’t get enough of the roller coasters. I used to be so embarrassed by my mother, waiting at the exit for me.

Now I’m the one lingering at the exit, usually sitting on a bench knitting socks. I figure if I’m going to be an embarrassment, I may as well go all the way.

Something happened to me after I had children so that death defying experiences no longer thrill me. I’m not sure if it’s the maturity gene kicking in, or if my stomach just no longer accepts rough treatment. Whichever it is, my body resists roller coasters.

Teens, though, flock to them, and the faster, the better. Perhaps it’s because time goes so slowly when you’re waiting for that magical age of sixteen, when you can drive, or eighteen, when you can move out (hopefully). But when your next birthday is forty, or fifty, or sixty, fast isn’t as high on the agenda.

What makes these rides so fun, though, isn’t just the speed; it’s the perceived danger. When you let yourself be strapped in, you’re risking it all. It must be the same thing with extreme skiing, or snowboarding, or even skateboarding. You’ve never felt so alive.

Risk, along with money, love, and even altruism, seems to be one of our main motivators in life. Bill Gates took a risk when he founded Microsoft. Ford took a risk when he started making automobiles few could afford to buy. Right now, I hope many are taking major risks to try to come up with something other than gasoline which will fuel our cars. It was risk that brought people to North America from Europe; it is acceptance of risk that spurs on our economy and even our culture.

But just as there can be healthy risk, there can also be unhealthy risk. Too many find exhilaration from risk: from gambling; illicit affairs; even day trading on the stock market. If there’s nothing at stake, where’s the thrill? To me, these individuals seem like teenage boys who have never quite grown up, for males, and particularly those in their teens, seem to be drawn specifically to risk.

Take, for instance, that big campaign in the eighties with the eggs in a frying pan, saying “this is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.” Quite unforgettable, wasn’t it? Leonard Sax, the author of the ground breaking book Boys Adrift, argues that it was also largely a failure, at least where adolescent boys were concerned. Because boys crave risk, when the government showed them how risky drug taking was, they thought, “Cool!” Drug use increased, at least among males.

Girls, who tend to shy away from risk more, did listen. Sax argues that we need to push girls to try difficult and new things, and urge them out of their comfort zone. Boys, though, don’t need a shove out. They need to be reined in using stiff consequences, rather than threats, which, paradoxically, can make the risky behaviour more attractive. But they also desperately need healthy outlets that are a bit risky. When we try to control boys by eliminating all competition from schools, or removing playgrounds because they might be dangerous, or canceling school camping trips because of the liability, we remove too much healthy risk from boys’ lives. Chances are they’ll find an outlet that is far less palatable to us in the end.

A healthy society will channel risk and manage it. It won’t eliminate it. We need the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the out-of-the box-thinkers, even the dare devils. What we don’t need are immature risk-takers who endanger themselves and others. It’s a fine line, and I’ve yet to figure out how to promote one and minimize the other. Next time I’m sitting at the exit, waiting for teenagers to disembark from a ride, I’ll give it some more thought.

S. Wray Gregoire
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