Like a lot of you, my mind today is on the awful tragedy last night at Fox Mill Elementary, where a group of teenage boys were climbing around on the roof and one of them, Bennett Rill, stepped on an electrical wire and later passed away. As I write this, it’s not clear exactly what the boys were doing up on the roof, but they didn’t appear to have anything sinister in mind. It appears that walking on the roof was something they did often, just because they could. Just boys being boys, teenagers having fun. They couldn’t imagine that it would end the way it did.
This story hit me hard, because I can see it from both sides, as a child and as a parent. It’s scary precisely because it’s the kind of awful misfortune that could happen to any child. These weren’t bad kids; they were just a little reckless, like most kids are. I’m thankful that I’ve never experienced something this terrible firsthand, but I understand how it can happen, how in the blink of an eye, with one missed step or bad break, youthful fun can turn into tragedy.
In retrospect, it’s remarkable that so many of us make it through childhood in one piece. My friends and I never did anything as daring or risky as climbing on the roof of a school, but we certainly engaged in our share of dangerous hijinks. We’d jump off the top of the sliding board, race our bikes through obstacle courses, play touch-tackle football on our neighborhood streets, and joust with sticks for swords. It’s fun and funny to think of those moments now, but only because we all made it through with nothing more than scrapes, bruises, and the occasional broken bone. Nothing really bad happened to us.
The thrill of the illicit is big when you’re a kid. Being where you’re not supposed to be, doing what you’re not supposed to do, will always be alluring. An important part of childhood is testing boundaries, breaking rules, and taking risks. I suspect that’s at least part of why the boys got up on the roof at Fox Mill.
It’s certainly what drove my friends and me to do things like trespassing on the golf course next to our neighborhood. Part of it was that we wanted room to roam (and a place to play football without getting road rash), but there was also a thrill in sneaking on there without getting caught, knowing where and when to hide when the maintenance staff came passing through, defying our parents’ warnings about being hit by golf balls. Those warnings always seemed ridiculous to us, but only because none of us ever got hit.
When you’re young, it’s easy to become convinced that you’re invulnerable and immortal. Reston was a safe community when I was a kid, and it still is today, so it’s easy for a kid to convince himself that there are no dangers out there. And when you’re out with friends, daring and egging each other on, it’s easy to take bigger risks than you should. Most of the time, they don’t come back to bite you. But sometimes they do.
Now, as a parent, I’m very well aware of the risks and dangers out there. My daughter (knock on wood) doesn’t seem inclined toward doing a lot of risky things. But she will also test the limits from time to time. For instance, she’s rather fond of practicing gymnastics moves on and over our couch. I’ll see her do this, and I’ll warn her about hitting her head on the coffee table. And she typically rolls her eyes and scoffs. She can’t imagine that happening to her. Any more than me or my friends could imagine getting hit by a golf ball. Or the Fox Mill kids could imagine anything bad happening up on the roof.
It’s a tough balance to strike as a parent. You want to protect your children and keep them safe, of course. But at the same time, you can’t wrap them in bubble wrap and keep them insulated from all dangers. You don’t want your kid to hide away in her room, afraid of the big bad world. Taking risks – and occasionally going too far and getting hurt – is how we learn responsibility and knowing our limits. But that doesn’t make it any better when your kid comes home with a black eye or a broken arm. Or worse.
As a parent, you’re always concerned for your child, even if she’s right beside you. But you worry even more about what your kid does out of your sight. Parents today tend to keep a tighter leash on their children than they used to, but the kids will still go off on their own sometimes. And that’s a good thing; you can’t (and shouldn’t) be with your kid 24/7. Children need to learn independence and self-reliance, and they can’t do it if their parents are always hovering. In the wake of tragedies like this one, it’s tempting not to want to let your kid out of the house. But you have to let them out and let them take risks. It’s part of growing up.
My heart goes out to the parents of the boy who lost his life on the roof at Fox Mill. And my heart goes out to the friends who were there with him; they’re probably going to carry the scars of this with them the rest of their lives. I hope that they all have family, friends, and neighbors to comfort and support them.
When I come home to my daughter, I’m going to hug her a little longer than usual. And I’m going to talk to her about risk and knowing your limits and the difference between having fun and being reckless. And she’ll listen politely, I’m sure. But there are some lessons you can only learn for yourself.