My 5-year-old Hannah has mastered the art of tree-climbing. She is tall enough now to reach the low branches. She has also become agile and confident enough to navigate up very high. Very high. She loves it. Up, up, up she goes. 8 feet up, 10 feet up, 14 feet up. When she reaches her personal peak, she calls to me. “Mama, Mama! Look at me! Can you see how high I am? I am so high!”
From down on earth I briefly squint up at her and let out a half-hearted, “Wow, look at you!” Because I am all torn in up knots, and filled with internal conflict. I try not to show it, but I do not enjoy the tree-climbing at all.
On the one hand, I appreciate that both of my children like to stretch themselves as they acquire new skills. I love that they are active and engaged. I particularly enjoy it when they are active and engaged outside, instead of in my living room. I believe that it’s normal and healthy for children to take risks and explore their personal limits. I know that I can’t protect them from everything, and that you have to fall down a lot of times before you learn to walk.
Hannah at 3 years old, already infatuated with tree-climbing
On the other hand, I don’t want my children to hurt themselves. As my daughter scales her tree, a vision of her falling down from that tree flashes in front of my eyes. There is danger here. Lots and lots of danger. And I kind of want to make her come right back down and never go back up again. Ever.
Just over a week ago I was at a playground with my friend and our respective children. My 2-year-old Jacob was climbing up high on a big kid play structure, and I wasn’t right there. I was trying to give him space to explore. And in his exploring he fell off that play structure, more than 6 feet to the ground below. Not exactly head-first, but top-end down in general. I saw him, but I was too far away to catch him. So I raced to him, filled with sheer panic.
He bumped his cheek badly, but not in an area where there were any bones. He bit his tongue and was bleeding a bit. I nursed him briefly – for less than a minute. The blood disappeared from his mouth, and he decided he was more interested in the diggers than anything else at that point. He was fine. I was traumatized. Even now, I can see what he looked like as he fell. And I know that we got off easy. It could have been so much worse – he could have had a concussion or broken a bone, but for half an inch in a different direction.
Jacob and his injured face, the next day
After Jacob’s fall my protective instincts ramped up again. I told Hannah that she couldn’t climb trees. I wasn’t up for another tumble. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – I needed a few days to recover emotionally. But now, my reasonable recovery period has passed. And once again Hannah is reaching into the stratosphere.
At the heart of it, I believe that allowing my children the freedom to explore is one of the most important things I can do as a parent. I know that I can’t protect them from every possible injury, and any effort to try will be to their detriment, as I wrap them in cotton and sit them in front of a screen to keep them occupied. But even though I don’t want to prevent them from taking risks I don’t enjoy seeing them do it, not even a little bit. So I stand on the ground, emit the occasional, “Be careful!” and argue with myself. And breathe a huge sigh of relief when everyone’s back down on earth again.
How do you handle risk-taking with your children? Where do you draw the line between safety and exploration? And how do you get over the guilt when your children are injured as a result of their exploration? I need some help over here!