- Children learn trust through trying, failing, and trying again.
- Parents learn trust through trusting their child, themselves, and life.
- There is a big difference between protecting children from danger and protecting them from risk and failure.
It was a chilly November afternoon and my 5-year-old son Everest and I were walking in Central Park. I had just picked him up from school and we always tried our best to get out to the Park. He is a nature boy and needs more time outside than in.
On that day, we walked down towards the rocks near the lake, where you'll find romantic rowboats in the summertime. He loves climbing those rocks. He carries his name well.
Not far away there was a tree whose trunk had bent and fallen a few feet above the water, so it hangs horizontally. Everest wanted to walk on the trunk while holding the upper branches for balance. After looking at the situation, I thought this would be fine.
I could see and even feel some other parents looking at me likely thinking, ‘She’s crazy to let him do that. What bad parenting.'
Still, I want to encourage my son to trust himself, his body, and also his decision-making as best he can.
Instead of telling him what I didn’t want to have happen, i.e. ‘don’t’ fall’, I told him what to focus on: “hold on to the top branches for balance’. I even took a photo of my courageous boy.
Another set of older boys walked close by to my son who was in mid-climb, and shouted, ‘Snapper Turtle’. I don’t know if there really was one in the water, but upon hearing that, my son got scared, let go of the top branch, and fell in the water.
Everest knows how to swim so he didn’t panic. He swam a few feet towards the edge of the lake and got out. His main complaint was ‘ Wow. That is cold.’ He wasn’t scared, wasn’t traumatized. Just wet. I didn’t have a spare set of clothes so we walked home soaking wet, with a bunch of people giving us interesting looks.
I never did glance back at the other parents there that day.
We did return to the exact same spot a few days later and yes, you guessed it, Everest was right back on the fallen tree trunk, this time determined not to fall back in. He has done it a few dozen times now.
I have often thought about that moment in the park. What it taught him and what it taught me as a parent.
There are three levels of trust in the way I approach parenting.
Trusting myself. Trusting my child. Trusting life.
Trusting myself means listening to my gut, my intuition, being in the moment with each situation and decision. In the park situation, I knew that the worst that could happen was him falling in the water. He can swim. I can swim. I can get him. It didn’t feel like a big risk.
Trusting my child means knowing who your child is, believing in them especially if they believe they can do something, not letting your own fears or projections cloud their desire to explore what they are capable of. It means holding a vision for your child of them succeeding at something potentially hard, even where there is some risk involved. I know Everest has good balance and is aware of his body.
Trusting life means believing that the Universe is also a co-parent and watching out for your child. If you think about it, it had a lot to do with creating your child in all his/her magnificence in the first place. I always remember that I am not alone on this parenting adventure and that the same force that helped make my child, is still around.
Back to the day my son fell in the water.
Here is what I think he learned:
- I can try something hard and fail and it’s not the end of the world.
- Mom didn’t panic so it wasn’t a big deal. We actually both had a good laugh about it.
- I can try again and learn from what happened last time.
Here is what I think I learned:
- I can assess the risk of the situation and say Yes or No at any given moment.
- When you speak to a child, focus on what you want (ie Hold on to the top branch), not what you don’t want to have happen (don’t fall.)
- Children will hear the last part of what you tell them: My state and reaction to what happened had a big impact on how Everest handled this.
One more: Your parenting journey is yours. It doesn’t matter what anyone else tells you or thinks of your choices.
We are always making up stories and giving meaning to everything that happens in our lives. This was a moment where Everest could have learned to not trust himself, fear climbing trees again, fear the water, and stop doing challenging things.
I also could have made up a story that I am a terrible Mom who let my son fall into the lake in Central Park in November. I could have been consumed with guilt and ashamed of what everyone else thought of us there and then. On the contrary, it was a special bonding moment between mother and son instead.
Giving your child low-risk parameters to explore their world, are what builds up their ability to make good decisions for themselves and not always have to rely on you or someone outside of themselves. Protecting them from danger is one thing. Protecting them from failure or small risks is another.