He watched as one after another of his friends
played the game. At the end of the game, they
each wobbled about unsteadily and stared about
glassy eyed. But after a moment they recovered,
and in a macho explosion of pride at having successfully
crossed some unknown boundary, they laughed. And
now it was his turn. He panted at first, then
he held his breath and held his breath. Then came
the sudden squeeze across his chest, and the solid
ground beneath his feet seemed to disappear in
an instant. He fell forward, his head slamming
hard against the wall.
He was thirteen, in junior high, and his mother
had brought him to the emergency room after receiving
a call from the school nurse that her son had
fainted after playing this bizarre breath-holding,
chest squeezing game.
"I thought they would catch me," the
teenager told me, holding an ice pack to his swollen
cheek, obviously disappointed that his friends
had let him down.
"Why do you play those games?" his
mother asked, bewilderedly.
"You feel a little high, a little spacey
for a minute," he innocently answered. "That's
This was not unusual behavior for a teenager.
In fact, in an age of drugs and alcohol, it falls
into the more bland of risk behaviors. We all
have our individual temperaments. Some of us are
more risk-takers, others assiduously avoid taking
risks. Some of us are more daring, others more
cautious. But growing - in youth or adulthood
- requires taking some risk, pushing ourselves,
if not to the brink, at least towards it. The
danger lies when our risk-taking is motivated
by non-productive competition, as in my teenage
patient's breath-holding challenge; by trying
to alter one's consciousness using drugs without
considering the consequences; or by the vacuous
thrill of a game, such as an adult's excessive
We ought to expect that children will take risks.
Indeed, the heroes of television, film, and real
life are risk-takers. We have to expect that children
will emulate them. The job of parents, teachers,
and mature peers is to channel risk-taking behavior
toward socially desirable goals. The thrill of
competitive sports instead of the thrill of drugs.
Mastering a difficult academic challenge instead
of mastering how to cut school.
While we must set limits and help define goals
for those children who are impulsive and dangerous
risk-takers, just as much effort ought to be made
to encourage a shy, withdrawn child to take a
I think the embarrassment of being brought to
the hospital by his mother, and perhaps perceiving
that he had failed at his schoolyard game, pained
my young patient more than the small gash on his
face that was easily sutured. He'd have a little
scar on his cheek forever. Perhaps it would be
his "dueling scar," small evidence of
youthful foolishness and risk-taking. I think
it was a small price to pay for a valuable lesson.
Experimenting with losing control, he realized,
was not only dangerous but some consequences were