It was a good thing the wall was inflatable; otherwise my anxiety would have been even higher.
It was only her third try but she scrambled up, finding hand and footholds quickly, as though she had made the same journey hundreds of times before. I assisted her sparingly during her first two trips, giving her a boost when she needed, but usually just directing her to find the next small ledges to plant her feet. I didn’t touch her on that third time, although I was ready to catch her as she went over the curved outcropping halfway up. I hadn’t thought much of it at the time, aside from being amazed at how rapidly she had mastered the climbing wall, but she apparently noticed that I wasn’t holding her anymore.
“Are you still behind me?” she had asked.
The question itself was innocent enough. She hadn’t bothered to look back over her shoulder to see for herself if I was there; she was more focused on keeping moving at that moment.1 She had no idea that her little voice had sent my mind into overdrive recalling pieces of attachment theory and child development. She was lucky, in that sense; she was still young enough that she didn’t have to concern herself with reading into idle comments.
I kept thinking about the greater concept of being behind my children in the days following that little adventure. Trudy and I have discussed since Eitan was little that we want to give our kids the chance to explore on their own. They need to learn how to be independent, how to succeed and fail on their own. I stayed with Shayna because she could have lost her balance or lost her grip after being bumped by one of the older children rushing by her. The wall was steep and at least twenty to thirty feet high and she’s still little; a fall on that wall, inflatable though it was, could have had terrible results. I kept some distance, though; far enough away that she really had to figure out her path on her own, while still close enough that I could jump in to steady her if she needed help.
The struggle to find the right balance is a familiar one for parents. How much space should we give our kids to try new things? How close is too close? How much should we push them to move outside their comfort zones, particularly if they seem reluctant? At what point does that encouragement end up doing more harm than good? And the reverse process warrants consideration too: how do we prevent our own anxieties from influencing our kids as they strive for new experiences?
Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule for figuring out these answers. There is no user manual that says what age kids can learn to swim or ride a bicycle or climb an inflatable rock wall. There is no app where parents can input their own traits, their child’s personality and the activity at hand and receive a clear direction as a result. There is a reason, after all, that I described the search for balance as a struggle.
Keeping that search going, though, is the best that we can do as parents. We have to continue monitoring our own actions toward our children to avoid leaning too far in one direction or the other. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy but all play and no work means Jack probably can’t get a job to buy food for his family. We need to instill strong work ethics in our children so that they are prepared to become independent adults, while also spending enough time in unstructured play with them so they learn to use their imaginations and do not become jaded. Too many risks can put a child’s safety in danger but too few risks keep kids from learning to try new things or have new experiences.
I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions – I wrote about that last year – but the idea of making New Year’s “intentions” appeals to me.2 Resolutions are graded on a pass/fail basis; you went to the gym every day or you didn’t. You lost twenty pounds or you didn’t. You traveled more, organized your closets, got a new job, eliminated your debt… or you didn’t. And, since most New Year’s resolutions are not designed for success in the first place, most of us end up failing.
Intentions, though, are graded on more of a curve. I intend to be more aware of my social media presence and the people whose material I share on Facebook and Twitter. I intend to make more productive use of my subway commute, mainly by writing more blog posts, and to use those posts to make a bit of extra money for my family off my writing. I intend to be more intentional with articulating my point of view, as opposed to spouting off whatever comes to mind or keeping quiet entirely.
Most importantly, I intend to be more aware of the language I use around my children and the way I influence their behavior. I intend to be more vocal about how much I love my wife and more active in demonstrating those feelings. I intend to be more aware of the ways my actions affect my family. I intend to pay closer attention to my relationships with my friends and relatives.
I’m aware that I may not reach the top of the wall as quickly or as easily as my daughter did as I make my way through the coming year. The key is to remember that, in parenting and in life, there is no “top;” we’re all just climbing, doing our best to find the next grips to lift ourselves up and keep from falling. We all just have to keep moving forward.
1. Of course, I’m sure that my immediate answer helped her to keep her eyes forward since she didn’t have to worry that I had left her.↩