I knew I was supposed to have "the talk" about safe sex. And about drugs, and smoking, and stranger-danger, and texting while driving, and not eating unwrapped candy at Halloween. When they were younger I taught them to look both ways before crossing the street, and to never get in the car with someone they don't know; as they got older I warned them not to text pictures of themselves naked, or get in the car with someone who was drunk.
I didn't know I had to warn them about helium.
Neither did Ashley Long's parents. The 14-year-old Oregon girl told her Mom and Dad she'd be at a slumber party ten days ago, but she went to a different kind of party instead -- one at the condo of a 27-year-old, where there was alcohol and marijuana and a tank filled with helium. Ashley breathed in the gas, because it's funny to hear your voice get high and squeaky.
Instead, she died.
Now her parents are trying to warn other parents, so they can warn their children. Helium, while inert, yes, is not benign. True, most people don't die from a hit or two. And sure, it has been a fun parlor game for years, sucking on helium balloons. But in sufficient concentration -- directly from a tank for instance -- the helium crowds out the oxygen and can cause suffocation, which is why it is used in so-called "suicide machines". Mixing with alcohol or drugs doesn't help, either.
One more warning on the list.
Sometimes parenting feels like a race to discover what you should be afraid of before it shows up and grabs your child. It feels as if there is always something new, but really it is all part of the same thing -- that your teen will do something stupid, and you will not have warned them. At all. Or enough.
So what is a parent supposed to do?
What we have always done. Read the news. Ache for the victim's parents. Talk to our children, even when they roll their eyes. Especially then.
But also understand that however long we make our list, however much talking we do, there will always be something we didn't think of, didn't say. Or something that they failed to hear.
Because essentially we are racing against our children. Against the fact that they are teens. That their brains are not developed, particularly the part that assesses risk. That they are far more vulnerable to peer pressure than they will be a few years down the road, and that something we see as stupid they might see as a great idea when it's being done by "everyone else." On top of that, they are pretty sure they are immortal, and that the rules of biology and physics don't really apply to them.
There are real bogeymen out there. But while we try to list, and quantify, and warn, the main danger is out of our reach. Because mostly what we are racing is time, and the simple fact that if we can just keep them safe long enough, maybe they will reach the point where they can keep themselves safe, instead.