The green of the jungle ahead stretched to the horizon, dwarfing the shadow of our little 4-seater Cessna as we rumbled through the clouds above. My eighteen-month-old slept with his head nestled in my sweat-stained armpit. Not for the first time, I wondered whether I was the worst parent in the world.

Teddy Roosevelt nearly died in a jungle like this, I thought. And I’ve brought my toddler here.

My husband and I love to travel. And I mean the kind of travel that might find us falling asleep under the stars in Zimbabwe as we listen to a herd of elephants squelching around in the mud to cool off. Where we spend Christmas Day hiking the Bale Mountains in search of endangered Ethiopian wolves. At the heart of our marriage lives an unquenchable thirst for adventure, fueled by limitless curiosity and a certain daring; gifts that have served us well in life, that we hoped to pass on to our son.

But when I got pregnant, friends and family assured me our adventures would stop. The baby could get sick, they said. He could get kidnapped. He might cry and bother the aeroplane passengers. Kids need routines, they told me. Never disrupt The Schedule. Their reasons were varied, but had one common denominator.

Fear.

Fear of the child getting hurt or ill or injured or upset. Fear of judgement by others. Fear of frustration to us, the parents.

Fear is essential to our survival. Humans with no fear centre, if they ever existed, died out when the last valiant idiot with an underdeveloped amygdala tried to pet the tiger instead of running from it. Fear is essential, too, to protect our children, whose amygdalas have not yet fully formed.

But our fear centres have not yet caught up to the modern world, which is the safest it’s ever been in the history of human existence. Antibiotics like the amoxicillin I’d packed for our trip to the jungle of Guyana didn’t exist when Teddy Roosevelt nearly succumbed to an infection while exploring the Amazon. There was no such thing as medical travel insurance back then; no way for a plane to rescue the intrepid former president after he’d cut his leg open on a rock.

Of course there are still very real dangers of taking a small child to the jungle. Though we didn’t see any, venomous snakes are known to haunt the jungle floor. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes buzz about, making that disease a recurring fact of life for the locals. Caimans – close cousins of alligators – dot the waterways, so plentiful the sight of them lost its novelty after our first boat ride down the Rupununi river.

Fear of such dangers can, of course, be healthy. It drove me to keep my son in a backpack when hiking through the rainforest rather than let him explore on foot; to administer a paediatric dose of antimalarial each day; to keep a steady grip on his infant life jacket as he stretched out over the side of the boat to run his fingers along the surface of the water.

It did not, however, stop us from taking the trip altogether. And some may indeed call me a terrible parent for taking a little kid to such an inhospitable place. Lenore Skenazy, author and advocate of free-range parenting, has written extensively about the prevalence of “worst-first thinking” amongst American parents. The term, which describes the tendency to think up the worst possible outcome and operate as though it will happen, has become all but a parenting philosophy in the U.S. As Jonathan Haidt writes in The Coddling of the American Mind, “Unless parents prepare for the worst possible outcomes, they are looked down on by other parents and by teachers for being bad parents.”

At times I did certainly question my decision. For one, Venezuela had been threatening to annex part of Guyana shortly before we left on our trip, claiming the latter’s recently discovered oil reserves as their own. While most geopolitical experts agreed such threats were unfounded and the The State Department issued no additional travel warnings in response, visions of my family getting caught in the middle of a border scuffle swam in my mind, reinforced by alarmist social media accounts and worried family members. 

Besides the threat of war, there was still the objective wildness of the jungle to worry about. Upon checking into our hut the first night, we discovered some unexpected roommates: a family of bats living in the rafters. As I lay awake in bed that night listening to the excited chitters and flaps of tiny wings, my little boy curled up next to me, I wondered what I had gotten him into. 

A beach vacation would’ve avoided much of these anxieties. No snakes. No bird-eating spiders. (Yes, they’re real.) No belligerent dictators threatening invasion. And while they don’t advertise it, I’m pretty sure the rooms at the Nassau Hyatt are bat-free. 

But my desire to pass on the gift of adventure superseded all these worries. I want my son to experience the joy of exploring all the beautiful, wild places of the world. I want him to feel the satisfaction of stepping outside his comfort zone. I want him to have the chance to nourish that curiosity and that sense of daring that have provided so much meaning and joy in my own life.

And as we soared over the endless green carpet of rainforest, I smiled at the prospect of the Venezuelan military cutting their way through hundreds of miles of dense rainforest to reach Guyana. The very idea was absurd. Even the most elite military in the world would have trouble surviving such a march. 

And my son thrived amidst the wildness of the jungle. While I felt at times I would suffocate as the steamy heat of the rainforest wrapped itself around me like an unwelcome blanket, Winston seemed energised by it, barely stopping to take breaks from chasing birds and inspecting bugs and pointing at the lovely flowers that decorated our surroundings. He ate roti stuffed with spiced chicken and tasted sorrel juice made from hibiscus blossoms. Our Guyanese guide taught him how to call giant river otters to the surface of the water, and he was so adept at it he became known amongst the guides as “Otter Boy.” He made friends everywhere we went, happy to play games with locals as my husband and I looked on.

Perhaps this is just his nature. But even if his plucky resilience and curiosity about the world were seeds planted in his personality well before his birth, this experience poured cool, life-giving water on them. I saw it in the way his eyes sparkled with excitement as the first otter popped its head above water to see who was making all that noise. I felt it as he squealed at the way our little boat zoomed down the river, dodging rocks and rapids and caimans. Like the shoot of a wild mango tree, his thirst for adventure was sprouting before my eyes.

Making parenting decisions purely from a place of fear would have deprived him of this critical nutrition. Well-adjusted kids possess a healthy sense of wonder and thirst for exploration – and these are only when we, as parents, both model it and create opportunities for our children to cultivate it themselves.

There will always be risks of something going wrong, and an unfortunate reality of parenthood is that our capacity for being afraid swells to new levels. It is one thing to fear for one’s own safety; it is quite another to fear for your child’s. Our drive to protect our children from every possible danger feels more important than anything we will ever do, so it is easy to justify any decision to that end – however low the probability of the frightening outcome.

But we’ve got to keep the long game of parenting in mind, balancing the near term risks against the broader objective of raising a courageous, curious, well-adjusted kid. When we feel fear bubbling up inside us at a given decision, we must first ground ourselves in that ultimate goal. Then we consider how real the risk actually is. What is the true probability of the outcome we are so afraid of? What steps might we take to mitigate risk without depriving our kids of opportunities to cultivate a healthy sense of adventure?

As we cruised over the rainforest canopy on our way home, I considered what my son would take away from our journey. While he may not retain visual memories of our trip to the jungle, small children still have sensory memories. The thrill of coming face to face with wild creatures. The taste of uniquely spiced foods. The joy of making new friends in a new place. I believe these are all experiences that, somewhere deep in his little brain, reinforced the links between curiosity and joy, daring and delight; and solidified the roots from which his adventurous spirit will grow.

Thanks for reading

Author: Liz Robuck