If you have the kind of kid who always wants to climb a little higher into the tree or go a little faster down the hill, prepare to spend the next 15-or-so years trying to encourage healthy risk taking while simultaneously trying to mitigate those risks. Also, be glad you’re not Tod Weston, whose son KJ insisted on driving a monster truck before he hit kindergarten.
Weston wasn’t surprised — he did choose to raise his kids on a Florida ranch that doubles as something of a motor sports testing ground. “You figure, ‘Let’s get him into something,'” he recollects, as if he’s talking about fitting his kid for new cleats. “Something” turned out to be a custom-built monster truck, scaled appropriately for a kid KJ’s size and costing north of $40,000. Six years later, KJ, 12, and his brother Jake, 10, drive as part of a team of monster truck tykes that does halftime shows all over the country.
A lot of parents might think Weston’s crazy — and he may be — but he’s learned a few thing about how manage thrill-seeking kids while letting them safely challenge themselves.
1. Control What You Can
Where you see a rolling death trap with multiple kid-killing modes, Weston sees all the safety equipment he built into the truck, like a roll cage, head and neck restraints, fire suppressant systems, and a remote kill switch — in short, he sees a play space over which he can exert enormous control. His kids have never been injured in one of his trucks, but he’s seen plenty of kids get hurt playing traditional organized sports. “I wouldn’t want my kid playing lacrosse,” he says.
2. What You Don’t Know, Learn
While there isn’t much about the mechanics of monster trucks that Weston doesn’t know, there was one component to his son’s truck that freaked him out: gasoline. He didn’t fully understand how to mitigate the risks it presented, so he did the research, asked smart questions of smarter people, and learned how to expand his control of the truck to include the tanks and pumps. As result, the gasoline doesn’t present any greater risk than it does in your lawnmower.
So, what does a guy who built his 6-year-old son a monster truck say no to? “Backflips.”
3. Show Your Kids, Don’t Tell Them
When Weston built KJ’s truck, KJ helped. Weston taught him how to use a grinding wheel, welding tools, and everything else Weston felt he could safely handle. But he didn’t get to touch anything without learning how it worked, what it was used for, and all the mandatory safety precautions. Now, if KJ found you on the side of the road with smoke pouring out from under the hood, he could probably get you on your way before AAA gets there. Yes, he’s 12.
It was the same with the actual driving — Weston put him through a step-by-step training program. “I teach almost military style,” he says. “You don’t go to ‘B’ without ‘A.’ He knows how to handle this machine better than you can handle your car.” Again, he’s 12.
4. Don’t Be Stupid
Cool dad takes his kids water skiing; cool dad does not let his kid dictate the speed of the boat. “You have to say no, and know when to say no, for the safety of your kid,” Weston says. “Kids think — and you’d be surprised at how much they think — but they’re still kids.” So, what does a guy who built his 6-year-old son a monster truck say no to? “Backflips.”
Once you get your head around the fact that backflips are a thing monster trucks do, it makes total sense.
5. Why This Applies To You And Your Non-Monster Truck-Driving Kid
By allowing his kids to experience and experiment with risk in relative safety, Weston says they’re safer in the long term when he’s not around. “Every time they approach something new, it’s first, how do we look at this from a danger element so nobody gets hurt? And then, what’s the proper way to handle it?” he says.
That’s the sort of confidence you’ll want before sending Junior to summer camp, where they might otherwise be tempted to dive headfirst into the shallow end of the pool.