When to Embrace Life’s Red Flags


Last weekend, we went on a family vacation. The place we stayed wasn’t five-star. It was a bit crowded, and noisy at times. The bathrooms were gritty. The food was far from perfect, there was no air conditioning, and our room lacked fluffy pillows and high-thread count linens. The five of (plus our dog) were packed into a small room—we were literally stepping on top of one another.

We went camping, and it was one of the best experiences of our summer.

On Sunday morning, Heather and I got up and weighed our options. It had been a long weekend. Sleep was spotty. And it rained overnight, so we were dealing with soggy shoes, towels, and other items that we had forgotten outside while trying to get everyone to bed in our small camper the prior evening.

Hitting the road and getting home early to unpack and take hot showers seemed ideal but we had told the girls we would hit the beach one last time. Rather than end what had otherwise been a great weekend on a low note, we started ringing out towels and geared up for one last hurrah at a Lake Michigan beach in the small coastal town of Manistee.

After grabbing a quick breakfast in town, we drove down to the beach and were greeted with bad news: red flags were flying. A storm had blown in the night before and the wind was still whipping, especially along the shoreline. The sun was out and the temperatures warm, but the storm’s effects lingered and the water was rough.

People who have never experienced Lake Michigan are often surprised. It can resemble the Atlantic Ocean at times. Google “Lake Michigan Surfing” and check out the videos of people riding waves to get some perspective. It was one of those days.

The red flags are not prohibitive—people are allowed to venture out in the water but the flags indicate that there are risks involved.

While the girls played on playground for a few minutes, Heather and I discussed whether we would heed the red flag warning or let the girls dive in. We decided that as long as I was out in the water with them and our twins wore life jackets that we would let them let loose in the waves.

It turned out to be the highlight of the weekend. Our oldest had a blast body surfing in the waves, and the twins learned that diving into and under the waves was far preferable to trying to jump up and over waves and having its crest smack you in the chest.

It was exhausting and exhilarating for them, and we had a quiet, peaceful ride home as the girls snoozed in the back after all of the sun and surf.

I’m not 100 percent sure that letting them swim on a red flag day was the right decision. Yes, there were some risks involved. But there’s never full certainty about safety, anytime in life. One thing that we’ve found, however, is that some of our closest calls we’ve had with our kids is when the risks seem low and the conditions idyllic. It’s in those moments that it’s easy to let your guard down. It’s when we relax that they—ever curious, ever adventurous—find ways to put themselves in unimaginably precarious positions.

There are metaphorical red flags everywhere. Knowing when to let kids push past boundaries is, like knowing when to have kids in the first place, uncertain. As the father of young girls, I’m particularly attuned to this issue. I know how I played as a kid—rough and tumble—but I find myself wanting to protect and shelter my girls more than, I believe, I would if I had boys. Apparently I’m not alone in this instinct.

A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that girls are less likely to be exposed to the benefits of “risky play,” which refers to unstructured environments involving perceived elements of danger—think running through the woods unsupervised, moving at high rates of speed, and dangling precariously from monkey bars. The study found that we, as a society, are teaching girls to be scared, and that they are more vulnerable to risk than boys. As a result, girls are not benefiting by developing the social skills, resilience, creativity, and self esteem that risky play fosters.

Kids need to learn to respect red flags but not always adhere to them. Growth comes pushing past them. It’s easy to be crippled by fears of bad consequences. This is true throughout life. As adults, red flags come in many different forms, from fears of not fitting in to settling for comfort over chasing your true calling. There are potential downsides to each decision.

But life is too short and precious to always travel the safe, smooth path. Sometimes, despite the red flags, you have to dive right in.


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