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How A Disaster Relief Expert Raises Kids That Don’t Run From Danger

As a parent, you’re used to dealing with minor disasters, confronting everything from botched recitals to burnt dinners on a daily basis. But Ken Harbaugh knows disaster of a far different sort. The former Navy pilot and mission commander is President and COO of Team Rubicon Global, which provides relief for those who’ve been struck by catastrophe. Harbaugh doesn’t sit at a desk logging donations; he was a first responder in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, and has provided on-the-ground aid for refugees from Syria and Iraq.

What Harbaugh does is good, important work. And it’s good, important work that just so happens to take him away from his family for long stretches of time. When he returns from relief missions, he’s sometimes missed birthdays, holidays, and ball games. But Harbaugh feels stronger for having served others and is convinced his children are, too (even though his pre-teen daughter, intentionally or not, makes him feel a bit guilty). Here’s what Harbaugh, who, also co-authored the parenting memoir Here Be Dragons: A Parent’s Guide To Rediscovering Purpose, Adventure, And The Unfathomable Joy Of The Journey with his wife, says about sacrifice, open conversations, and the value in preparing — not protecting — your kids. Because life can occasionally be a disaster.

Sometimes Your Family Is Better Off In Someone Else’s Hands

As Harbaugh arrived in the Philippine countryside, locals were scrambling to get away from their devastated homes to the safety of Manila. They formed lines of thousands of people for days long, waiting to be airlifted to safety. “The scene I remember was a father lifting his little boy, who was probably 5, over the fence into the arms of a Filipino soldier,” Harbaugh says. He was out of earshot, but no doubt the father told the soldier to get his son the heck out of there, and he would find him later wherever he was. “Sometimes love means putting your family in the hands of other people.”

Kids Should Understand Why They Don’t Always Come First

Upon returning from the Philippines, Harbaugh didn’t talk to his kids about his experience for a couple of weeks. When he finally felt ready, he took an arm-in-arm walk with his 11-year-old daughter to explain why he’d left home and what he’d seen overseas. “I thought I was ministering to her,” he says. But his daughter said, “I know why you go. I thought you needed to talk to someone about it, Dad.” It was a mature answer and Harbaugh hopes all his kids will understand the value of service even at the expense of broken promises and missed birthdays. But don’t think he got off the hook that easy. “She’s also a pre-teen girl so she makes me feel bad about missing out,” he says.

The Dragons Are Usually Of Your Own Making

The title of Harbaugh’s book, Here Be Dragons is an allusion to early explorers who looked at their beast-stricken maps of the world and said “Screw the dragons, we’re going anyway!” It’s his way of saying that kids who lead overly safe lives will never set eyes upon beautiful distant shores. Consider this example from Harbaugh’s domestic life in Los Angeles: He and his daughter often walked past a homeless man on their way to their favorite burger joint. “When we took the time to talk to him and bring him a burger, we realized there’s no dragon. There’s just a guy with a hell of a story, some adventures to share and his own personal demons.” As powerful an anecdote as that is, the craziest fact is the bit about walking in Los Angeles, right?

Prepare Your Kids, Don’t Protect Them

As kids do, in the middle of winter in Ohio, Harbaugh’s daughter suggested something strange: That she and her dad take a walk — barefoot — in knee-deep snow. After making a pro socks-and-boots argument, he acquiesced. “So much parenting is about protecting, not preparing,” says Harbaugh. “But having practiced this philosophy enough, I said alright.” Predictably, they made it all of 100 yards before getting pretty uncomfortable. They sat on a bench, wiped the snow off, “cuddled and giggled” and put on socks and boots he’d secretly thrown in his backpack. When his kids get an idea, he asks himself what the worst possible outcome of doing it their way could be. “If your feet don’t fall off, you’ll laugh about it later,” he says. But if their feet had fallen off, Harbaugh probably could’ve handled it. Must be in the Navy’s basic training.

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Remember: There’s Always More Wonder Than Danger

Harbaugh is all about his kids having adventures. Yet, coming from a guy who has spent time in Syrian refugee camps, his idea of adventure is pretty attainable. He and his daughter scrambled up steep mountains, surfed, and paddled within spouting distance of humpback whales in the Pacific ocean. “From all the scary things I’ve encountered, we discover more wonders than dragons,” he say of their family adventures. In other words? Bask in the whale breath.