Life’s Risks

The recent tragic events in Las Vegas, and the spate of terrorist attacks in Europe, will have had all parents whose children study overseas pondering whether they made the right decision.

After all, Hong Kong has many fine schools and universities right here at home. Since we live in what is by any measure one of the safest cities in the world, why take the risk of sending precious children thousands of miles away where they might be in danger and we will inevitably see them less often? The counter arguments will be familiar to all families which have walked down this road: some courses are not available here, or are better taught elsewhere; living in another country is for most young people an enriching experience in itself, in addition to any academic benefit; being apart from relatives and friends helps teach self-reliance and is an important step in the maturing process. Where the correct balance lies in any particular case depends on individual circumstances.

My two teenage children were both leaning towards subjects not covered well or at all by tertiary institutions here in Hong Kong, and after research felt the best options were in North America, with the UK as a possible fallback. Hence our family has spent the last three summer holidays scouting suitable colleges for them. One visit to California actually included a side trip to Las Vegas, which as many readers will know is only about a four hour journey from Los Angeles by car. Moreover press reports of the carnage there have also included some other alarming statistics. The Financial Times, for example, quoted an organisation called Gun Violence Archive as saying there had been 274 mass shootings (defined as incidents in which at least four persons were killed or injured) so far in 2017.

After weighing up the different alternatives, my daughter chose the University of California Los Angeles and started there last month. London would have been cheaper but she is studying film making and the proximity to Hollywood was just too much of a draw. Would she have chosen differently if the Las Vegas mass shooting had come earlier? It is highly unlikely, nor would I have sought to persuade her. Would London – scene of several terrorist incidents in recent years – have been any safer?

The point is that important decisions in life should be taken on the overall balance of arguments. Provided we are not reckless in the thinking process, and don’t ignore altogether some highly relevant and probable adverse conditions, then we have to accept that there is a degree of risk in all the options. So a slightly higher risk of being the victim of a gun crime in the USA, or a terrorist attack in the UK, should not be the determining factors.

Similar mental juggling is needed when considering other lifetime choices, for example involvement in sport. When my two (now adult) sons were growing up, both played rugby and football as did most of their mates. Parents were relatively relaxed at that time about what were perceived as the very remote prospects of serious injury. We now know much more about the dangers of incurring injuries in contact sports. For example, recent studies in the USA of the brains of deceased NFL players found evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in 99 per cent of cases.

When my daughter decided to play rugby, naturally the question arose as to whether to try to steer her towards a more gentle activity. Clearly there are dangers, and parents are reminded of them every time a child comes home from a tournament bruised and limping. On the other hand, rugby is a very healthy form of exercise, and it promotes camaraderie and team spirit. Moreover, coaches these days are much more alert to safety issues.

At the end of the day, this once again comes down to balancing the factors off and, without being reckless, reaching a reasoned decision. There are also family politics to take into account. Parents of very young children are expected and entitled to be fairly autocratic in making important decisions on behalf of their offspring. But as children move into their teens and grow more mature, decisions become much more of a joint enterprise. Parents slip more into the role of advisers, ensuring that all relevant issues have been considered. After that, they basically have to respect their children’s choices.

I won’t pretend this is a painless process. At moments of severe strain on the nerves I find the occasional silent prayer, perhaps accompanied by a stiff gin and tonic, can provide some solace.