Monday, July 25, 2016

Letting Them Fall

When one of my students has a new baby at home, I jokingly ask, "Have you taught them to talk yet? Have you taught them to walk?"

When they answer, "No," I then ask, "Well, what does she do all day?"

They answer, "Sleep," "Cry," and "Drink milk from mommy," because, as newly-minted experts, they know that this pretty much represents the full repertoire of a newborn.

When human babies are born they are among the most helpless creatures in the animal kingdom, relying on the "goodwill" of the adults around them to tend to their every need. And it will be years until they are fully ready to care for themselves. In our modern world, the job, of course, typically falls on loving parents who often, at great sacrifice, turn their lives over to the task.

Slowly then, over the course of months and years, our children grow, and as they grow, as they develop, as they learn about the world, they become increasingly capable of doing more and more for themselves. And it is the job of the parent to slowly, slowly step back from their child as they become more competent and capable. Ideally then, by the time the child is an adolescent, they are capable of doing most things for themselves, and by the time they are a young adult they are no longer reliant on mom and dad.

We all know that's pretty much how it ought to work, even if there are ebbs and flows and ups and downs. In the end we all aim for children who can stand on their own two feet. But our minds and our emotions don't always see eye-to-eye on this.

I meet most of the kids I teach as young two-year-olds. They are all capable of walking and talking, yet it's quite common for a parent to still be doing their walking and talking for them, at least in public; carrying them from place to place and answering for them. It's easy to be critical of these parents who are not "allowing" their charges the space to be themselves, to practice walking and talking in the wider world, but I also understand. Only yesterday it seems, these were the newborns to whom they have devoted themselves and it's sometimes impossible to see from the inside that it's time to get those feet on the ground and to allow those voices to speak for themselves.

Not all parents are like this, but many are, and I see it as my job to create a space in which they can safely begin to release their hold. Indeed, there is a fine line between holding a child up and holding him back and it's not always clear where that line is. Still, over those first few weeks and months of school, that is the main task of these children and their parents, and they all do it at their own pace, experimenting with independence from one another and experiencing all the joys, sadnesses, successes and failures that go with it.

And then there are some parents, not the usually the ones who come to Woodland Park, but out there in the world, who never really begin to release their kids. We all know who they are. These are the parents, for instance, who are still buttering their teenager's toast. These are the parents who dig through their child's backpack each night hunting for evidence of homework assignments. These are the parents who can't quite remember that they are not parenting a helpless newborn. In its extreme form this style of parenting evolves into a the type of overbearing, controlling behavior we associate with the "Tiger Mom" archetype. In the interest of "protecting" their children, they do what's "best" for them, resorting to a kind of micromanagement in which children never really learn to "walk" or "talk" for themselves.

Fortunately, most of us know intuitively that this is not good for kids and most of us never go all the way over that particular edge, but at the same time, most of us, at least some of the time, find ourselves "saving" our children when they would have been better served by being left to learn from their failures. It's such a hard thing to do for most of us, and indeed, it can even feel cruel to allow our "newborn" to fall. We want to always be there to catch them even when we know that it simply can't be.

This is may be the hardest work of parenthood and while it might take everything we've got to allow them to fall, we can at least always be there to comfort them when they do. No human is ever too old for that.

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