During a visit this spring, a group of us watched as Youngest Sister's then-21-month-old son climbed over, around and on a footstool in my living room. Second Nephew wobbled now and then before righting himself and all the adults in the room hovered at the edge, poised to catch him if necessary, but wanting to give him the opportunity to explore as much as possible.
Brother-in-Law commented that he and Youngest Sister had entered the risk-assessment phase in earnest with SN, who's their first child--trying to strike a balance between letting him have room to grow and explore his world and wanting to protect him from serious harm.
Here at Masked Mom Headquarters, we are at the opposite end of the parenting continuum--our youngest having turned 17 in June--and I told Brother-in-Law that I felt the search for the balance between protecting and stifling was never-ending and, really, the central parenting dilemma. It starts at birth really, but increases exponentially when our children become mobile, wriggling, crawling and toddling their way out into a world seemingly teeming with physical dangers and it doesn't move on so much as expand from there to include (the potentially even scarier) emotional and psychological dangers that are an inevitable part of making our way in the world.
On the one hand, it's perfectly natural to want to shield your child from every possible hurt, but not only is it impossible to do so, it's possible to do more damage than good by trying to keep your child too safe. Pain--physical and otherwise--is an essential part of how we learn our place in the world, the way we determine our strengths and limitations, how we find out all that we are truly capable of and how we come to know ourselves at the deepest levels.
Hubby and I always tended toward the more laid-back end of the protection spectrum.* In fact, during the conversation that day when Second Nephew explored the jungle gym of my living room, his mother, Youngest Sister, told a story about when Son-One and Son-Two were small. Son-Two, who was probably three or four at the time, came out of the bedroom crying and said he had fallen off of the dresser. Youngest Sister said, "You asked if Son-One had pushed him off the dresser and he said no. You didn't say anything at all about the fact that he was on the dresser."
Listen, it sounds a little insane when you put it that way--even to me. But at the time, they really enjoyed that dresser--it was wide and relatively low-slung. They had all sorts of imaginary adventures in it, on it, around it. I didn't think anything worse than a goose egg or a scrape could come of it. Classic risk-benefit analysis. And, of course, years (decades!) later I have the benefit of pointing out that nothing major ever did come out of it.
The counterargument that something major could have come of it is really the crux of the issue because something major could come of just about anything. As Brother-In-Law pointed out, every parent has to find his or her own comfort zone.
There is a degree of involvement that becomes unhealthy--when overprotection actually prevents our children from understanding natural consequences and learning to be responsible for themselves in the world. Hardly anyone uses the expression "helicopter parent" as a compliment--and with good reason. But hardly anyone acknowledges how truly difficult it is not to be a helicopter parent--even for someone who falls solidly on the more laid-back side of the equation.
When it becomes less about a scraped knee and more about a bruised psyche, things only get more complicated. Sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, body image issues, bullying, broken hearts--the list just goes on and on and gets more entertaining by the day. Watching your toddler climb around a footstool becomes, with a breathtaking swiftness, standing on the sidelines as your adolescent children navigate friendships, school commitments, and, eventually romantic entanglements while you try to decide when and how far to step in.
I have a feeling that all the experience I've had with the fine line between keeping them safe and stunting their growth is responsible for some of the fine lines I see reflected back at me in the mirror every morning.
*Some of that can be attributed to a conscious choice on our part, but some of it can probably be chalked up to the fact that due to our insanity-induced procreative schedule, we were outnumbered and it was mathematically impossible for us to hover in so many places at once. Regardless, I stand by our stance while fully understanding that not everyone has the same stance.
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