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Drinking Beer and the Dignity of Risk

Drinking Beer and the Dignity of Risk

Above is a picture of Aaron drinking a “cold one.” He’s 35 years old–so he’s well past the drinking age. But is this right?

Beer and Spaghetti

The only time my husband drinks beer is when we have spaghetti for dinner. I don’t know if it is a tradition, a ritual, a family memory, or just some sensory combination he thinks tastes good. He can’t explain it.

The last time we were eating spaghetti, Aaron reached over and picked up Tom’s frosted mug and took a sip. Tom and I both watched his eyes get big with surprise–it was not what he expected.

Now, maybe we are horrible parents that we would let our son, with severe disabilities and the label of autism, drink an alcoholic beverage. After all beer is not recommended on the food pyramid. But over the years, we have tried to allow Aaron to have what the professionals call, “the dignity of risk.”

Dignity of Risk

The concept of “dignity of risk” is we allow our children, and ourselves, to make choices and the accompanying mistakes, failures… because this is how we learn. This is how we build our self-esteem and self-worth. Our Dignity.

Of course, we build a safety net into the situation. For instance, we would never allow Aaron to drink a bottle of cleaner he found under the sink. We would not allow him to get drunk. We would not allow him to take a glass of alcohol from a stranger.

Here is a related story about Aaron and his niece Isabella. (click here) Isabella’s safety was a priority. But with supervision, Uncle Aaron could have the dignity of pushing her in her stroller.

This is a difficult concept for many people to understand. Some people think Tom and I are reckless parents. An equal number think we are “hovering” parents and too protective. But hey, if you are a parent of a child with a severe disability, you know you can’t win. You have to do things as you see them.

Dignity of Risk and School

When Aaron was about 12 years old, one of his daily jobs was to help pack his lunch for school. He couldn’t do the whole job, but we worked with him, and over time, he learned to get a soft drink can and put it in his lunchbox.

This was a great goal because Aaron is always thirsty and loves pop. Getting a pop can and putting it in his lunchbox was a task that was repeated every day, so he got lots of practice. Aaron has physical balance issues and hates to bend over. The physical therapist recommended we put the pop on the middle shelf because it would strengthen some muscle or another….

It took Aaron a long time to master this goal, but he did it. It became part of our daily routine. And a source of pride.

The Dignity of Risk and Unexpected Circumstances

One day about noon I got a phone call from the school principal. He said, “Students are not allowed to bring beer to school.” Then he paused and burst into laughter.

“What?” was all I could say.

The principal then described the lunch scene where Aaron is sitting on the cafeteria benches with about a hundred other junior high school kids.

Aaron opens his lunchbox, and with his peanut butter and jelly sandwich and apple slices he pulls out a Bud Light. (I couldn’t make this up.)

Of course, the crowd went wild. By the time the teachers could figure out what the pandemonium was about, Aaron was a school legend.

Thankfully the principal knew Aaron and he wasn’t suspended.
Apparently, Aaron didn’t put his normal soda in his lunch box.

So then, was this a colossal failure and we stopped allowing Aaron to pack his lunch? No, his daily goal was amended to include sorting and classifying the silver cans before he put one into his lunchbox. Great learning opportunity, not failure.

Spaghetti and Beer

On the night of this picture, Aaron gave the beer back to his dad. We thought that was the end of it, but then he picked up the beer can, put it to his lips and said, “AHHHHH”.

Guess the spaghetti and beer tradition is genetic.

Virtual Beer for the first comment:

What do you think of the “Dignity of Risk”? Do you have any stories to share? Embarrassing Learning Experiences?

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All the best,


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10 Responses to “Drinking Beer and the Dignity of Risk”

  • Steven says:

    I have been giving a lot of thought to “risk” lately myself. It is the defining characteristic of being an entrepreneur. I think it is the defining characteristic of all success in fact. However, the greater the risk, the greater we go out of our comfort zone, and the more we face the unknown. This can make risk-taking a very scary thing for most people. I think you covered it well.

    Looking forward to reading more soon!
    Steven recently posted..PsychNews- Oct 10 – 16

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Welcome Steven. Thanks it’s been a busy weekend, but I hope to have a new story for Monday.

      The “Dignity of Risk” was a hot topic in the 90s. Haven’t heard much about it lately. But you are right, it is the defining characteristic of entrepreneurs, success and life itself. It is so hard to move out of our comfort zone.

      I think one reason we haven’t heard a lot about risk is because for the last decade everyone has been in a status quo mindset–no growth, no risks. That has been hard on all of us.

      Tell us more about yourself. Glad you’re here.

  • Jack Pealer says:

    Hope he enjoyed it. I like mine with pizza, and, after being in Germany recently, I’m getting more particular about the beer I drink. I’m interested in Aaron’s favorite brand. Thanks for the photo.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Hi Jack, glad you liked it. Bet Germany was amazing. Welcome to our basecamp. Look around, think you will find some topics you are particularly interested in.

      Maybe you can answer Alison’s question. Who first started talking about “dignity of risk”?

  • Yes, this was a great story, Mary. You are so considerate and careful with your parenting of Aaron.

    Although you called it the dignity of risk, I guess I call it natural consequences albeit in a different situation. I hadn’t seen it as dignified before, just the only way my kids seem to learn. Makes me feel better about standing to the side and letting them fail.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      I don’t know the exact origin of the term “Dignity of Risk”. I first heard it from Bob Perske and I think Burton Blatt. I’ll have to check on that. They are both heroes of mine.

      But you are right Alison, it is how we learn.

  • Donna Owens says:

    What a great story! And a great principal. I’m sure I’ll tell it to others and I’m sure that lots of others have already told it.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Thanks Donna. I’ll bet he’s still laughing about that experience today. The good news was that Aaron’s goal of learning the difference between the Diet Pepsi and the Bud Light lead to him getting a job at the school loading the pop machine and having to learn the differences in all the different kinds of pop cans. I’d almost forgotten that part.

  • Becke Davis says:

    Never doubt that you are a great parent – I am simply in awe of you. I absolutely LOVE the story about Aaron bringing Bud Lite to school! I’m so glad the principal saw the humor of it!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      “This One’s for YOU” You get the virtual beer. I’m buying next time we go out.

      Becke, I’d had my ups and downs with this principal–so if he wanted to do the “zero tolerance” thing he could have forced us into a hearing. Of course, he knew Aaron couldn’t tell the difference between the two silver cans, but fortunately, he saw the humor in it.

      Maybe I’ll tell some more junior high stories sometime.

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