Thursday, March 10, 2011

Day 66: Pass the Bubble Wrap, Please

My fondest and most vivid memories of childhood all involve adventure. Whether I was hiking through the wood behind our home, swimming in the fish-filled creek up the road, or traversing the expansive nearby fields, it was moments of freedom and exploration that remain embedded in my mind.

Sure I played with dolls and put together puzzles, played school and house, and those things were fun. But there was something about being unsupervised, especially when there was an element of danger, that really made me come alive. This was when I got to feel powerful and capable, where I learned to trust my judgment and my gut, maybe even push my limits and learn something new about myself and my world.

I can't begin to count the number of things that could've gone horribly wrong on any one of these excursions. Looking back at my ten-year-old self coasting down a steep hill on my bike in the middle of the road, no helmet on my head, no hands on the handlebars, flying around a sand-covered corner at the bottom and just barely staying upright merely makes me shake my head and wonder how I'm still alive. But when I think about my sons taking those kinds of risks, I start sweating profusely and hyperventilating.

Knowing I made it out in one piece makes it easy to see those experiences as valuable. But looking out into the unknown with my own children makes me recoil in horror and reach for the bubble wrap.

Not a whole lot has changed in the world since I was young, but the way we see it has. There wasn't a single day of my life that I wore a helmet as I rode my bike through our neighborhood, but my son is required to wear one to ride a tricycle in the playroom at school. The risks are the same, but our assessment and reaction to risk is much different now than it was twenty years ago.

This culture of fear traps us in protective bubbles, where risk is always something to avoid and safety is the only goal. And if I'm not careful, I'm going to let it rob my children of the valuable experiences my own loving and protective parents provided for me.

Risk is an inevitable and important part of life, and one that I want my children to approach with wisdom and confidence, not fear and avoidance. I want to let them explore their own limits, find out what they're capable of, and feel that sense of freedom and independence that comes with choosing to take a risk.

My job as their mother isn't to protect them by avoiding anything risky; in fact that will only leave them vulnerable and ill-equipped when it comes time for them to face life on their own. Instead it's my duty to let them learn, in an ever-expanding circle of freedom, when to jump and when to back away from the edge.

I have to trust them if I want them to learn to trust themselves and approach life with confidence. Worry and trust are mutually exclusive, and I find myself worrying all too often, even now when they're so young their almost never out of my sight.

So I've been working on trusting Jackson more - letting him decide what he thinks is safe and what he thinks he's capable of. If I don't start now, I'm afraid when he's ten I'll be saying, "Sure, honey. You can go for a bike long as you stay in the driveway."

Today, he got to play outside in front of the house (with no snow pants or thick mittens) while I got lunch ready and watched him through our windows. I'm sure to anyone watching I looked like a negligent mother, but what I was actually doing was making a conscious choice to empower him. (And as a disclaimer, not all kids his age would be safe left alone outside near a street, but he is extremely cautious and would likely stay on the sidewalk even it was on fire and the street was his only escape.)

He shoveled, threw snowballs at the car, checked out a slippery patch of ice, and climbed precariously up and down the massive snowbanks. At one point I watched as a near face plant turned into a balancing act and recovery, an opportunity to feel capable I'm sure I would have intruded on with a hand hold or a "be careful" had I been out there.

There was no need to coax him into the house or to try to motivate him to leave behind the shovel (which I just realized is probably still in the middle of the sidewalk). I didn't have to tell him "it's too cold" or "it's time for lunch." When he was cold and hungry, he came to the door and asked to come in.

This might not be burned into his memory as an important childhood moment of freedom, but it will be remembered in mine as an important mothering moment of trust.

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