The Sky’s the Limit. Don’t Limit the Sky.
Without a doubt, the single most exciting, rewarding, and scary aspect of being a parent, for me, is to be instrumental in allowing my son to become the very best version of himself. I feel responsible to put him in positions where he will grow through both instant success and those that may require more effort. He likes to work out with me so he will try and copy the exercises that I do (at this point, he has mastered the burpee…the 5 year old variant, that is). When he can immediately mimic the easier exercises that I do his face lights up with satisfaction and it’s like he has checked a box and will want to modify it to make it harder and harder. When he cannot immediately copy what I do, he will either struggle with it for a while or change the exercise altogether to something that he may prefer to do. It’s in all of these experiences that he and I both learn a little bit more about him. In all of this, I do not ever want to stand in the way of his ability to grow in the direction he wants…and that is scary.
I was sheltered as a kid growing up. What that means to me is that I was shielded from really struggling. I had a strict curfew, was frequently told I couldn’t spend the night at my friends’ houses, couldn’t celebrate getting my driver’s license by, well, driving (my parents thought that the state of California’s confidence in me was not enough), and in many cases was not put in a position to overcome challenges that I faced without their intervention. Consequently, I grew up as one big fat…meow. Also, being sheltered didn’t exempt me from making mistakes. I made them. And when I made them later in life they were big and with big consequences. I often think what it would have been like to have made some smaller mistakes when I was younger and what impact that would have had on me later in life. It was my experience as a child that shaped who I wanted to be as a parent. And who I am as a parent is a dad that stretches his comfort zone so that my son can learn in ways that are natural for him and not me.
This is what is scary. It would be much more comfortable to just define the box in which our children will live within. That way we can keep them nice and contained and there will be less perceived possibility of anything bad happening. As long as we are comfortable with what our children are doing, it’s ok. When we are no longer comfortable with what we see our children doing it becomes automatically unacceptable. I find this mindset deplorable. We see “helicopter parents” at the playground, we see kids do what they do climbing up on something only to have their efforts squashed by concerned parents yelling at or running over to the children to “save” them from a “sure” catastrophe. We see children test boundaries all the time and having each test be met with justification after justification on why whatever they are doing is wrong. It is this behavior by parents that truly limits growth. Sure, we want our kids to be trilingual by age 4, reading by preschool, participating in dance, ice skating, soccer, baseball, chess, gymnastics, etc… every week because this is what develops them, right? They are carefully placed in well calibrated environments where their physical movement and critical thinking is constricted because it is safe. I think we are missing the boat. And when I say boat, picture an ocean liner. So the scary part to think about is this, “What if we were to take a step outside of ourselves and let our children drive their own growth?”
A story I tell often (and that I will share with you now) really drove this home for me. A few years back I took my then 3 year old to a nearby high school football field. There is a hill connecting the field to the bleacher seats that is rather steep and I used that to help him learn how to ride a bike. He got the feel for balancing by riding down a hill. It worked well. Along with the bike training we would also run around the track, play soccer on the field, wrestle, and play underneath stadium seats on the visitor’s side. There is scaffolding that extends upward from the ground a little over 15 feet underneath these seats. It is under here that we would practice pull ups and climb around. On this occasion, we were playing as usual and I left him so that I could collect his bike, water bottle, and my gym bag that were scattered around and in the general vicinity of where we were. After finding everything I walked over to where I left him and he wasn’t there. I scanned the area on the ground to see if he was sitting down or if he went back on the field. It wasn’t very long before I heard “Papa!” The voice was coming from above me. I look up and there he was, at the top of the scaffolding, a big grin on his face that was the result of his feeling of his great accomplishment. This was the first time he had ever done that. I had a choice to make right then and then and there, amidst some initial panic, about what I was going to do. As the range of options sped through my brain at warp speed, I decided that this was my chance to practice what I preach. Instead of freaking out I simply said “Wow, you are up there pretty high. How do you feel?” He said his usual response “Fine.” I then said “It must be fun to be up there up there as high as you are and you know part of being able to do that is being able to climb down by yourself too. Can you show me that you can do that?” He complied. I was underneath him and watched him effortlessly descend the scaffolding. As soon as his toes touched the ground, he wanted to go back up. It was very hard for me to let him do that again but I did. This time he climbed to a different part and it appeared he was getting stuck. At that moment, I raced up to help him. It turns out he wasn’t stuck but my being up there stressed him out and his confidence waned just a bit. I could see his expression change to one of fear and he slipped a little bit from his good footing but caught himself. Once he was secure he turned to me (I was still up there next to him) and said “You know, papa, you don’t have to be scared. I won’t fall.” He must have read my expression. I knew he was capable and he proved it. My attempt to “save” him made it worse for him in that moment. I said “You’re right. You can do it. You just let me know when you need me.” Then, I lowered myself down and let him have a ball.
There are moments as parents where our children teach us invaluable life lessons and this was one for me. They are more capable than we are comfortable giving them credit for and in that climbing moment, it was all put into perspective for me. I can see my son growing up as very confident boy. He doesn’t take risks he isn’t sure he will conquer and isn’t shy about asking for help when he needs it. He has had the opportunity to decide if he wants to go higher, faster, or farther and I believe that these things empower him to know himself and grow in the most natural, comfortable way. I wonder what would have happened if I made a different decision that day and brought him down and let him see an expression on my face of terror, anger, fear, or sadness. How would he approach future opportunities and challenges today? How capable and confident would he feel about himself? What part would I have played in that? This not easy. It is scary. And, if we think about what we can accomplish for our children by just providing space, how powerful are we?