The other day at the playground, Keener contemplated jumping from the highest step on a ladder. He looked to me for input and I found myself unsure of how to advise him. Managing risk is a skill. If I am always the one who manages his risk, it would be naive to think that he will develop this skill himself. In this instance, I decided to put my aspiring therapist hat on and threw the question back to him. What do you think about how high up you are? How do you feel?
Very quickly, he decided that he should take one step down and jump from that step instead. He flew threw the air and was quite pleased with his ability to fly. So pleased in fact, that he wanted to try it again — from the top step. Again, he looked to me for input and again I handed control back to him. It’s your call. Listen to your body.
With that, he climbed back up and decided he wanted to jump from the top. After a few seconds of hesitation, he jumped. Immediately after landing, he looked at me and said, “That was a little scary!” I asked him, Are you planning to jump from the top again? to which he answered, “No. One time was good.”
This situation sums up one of the most difficult parts of parenting. It exemplifies that whole quote about giving kids roots to grow and wings to fly (literally and figuratively!). Giving kids confidence and empowering them to make sound choices all while wincing in the background, unsure they are making the best, safest, or wisest choice.
Over time, Calm Chaos has evolved from me trying to control my kids to me trying to control myself. Watching Keener climb over a fence instead of walk through an open gate or watching Grace lick the bottom of my tennis shoes reminds me that my kids are not me. And that I am not my kids! (For the record, I would never lick the bottom of my tennis shoes even though I would likely opt for the more challenging physical task.) My goal is no longer, in fact, to control my kids. I can’t! Even if/when I want to! Instead, my goal is to tune into myself, knowing that my words and actions are impacting the people my kids are becoming.
Over and Under Parenting
When talking about control — or most things in life — extremes are often dangerous. One end of this extreme is giving my kids too much control (before they are ready to handle it.) Currently, my kids are not allowed to go into the street alone. At 1, 3 and 5, under-parenting on street safety would feel rather negligent. However, there will be an age when under-parenting becomes over-parenting in regards to street safety (and just about everything else). What is the age they can go in the street alone? I’m not sure. Street safety is one of hundreds of issues where we must release that responsibility from ourselves over to our kids as they continue to demonstrate increased responsibility.
However, the other extreme, over parenting, is just as damaging. As Madeline Levine says in her book, Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World, “Giving appropriate control to your child is key to decreasing his or her anxiety. Parents’ interference and the criticism it implies — You’re not doing this correctly, you’re incapable of doing it on your own — can lead to an unwarranted sense of failure in kids.” So how do we find that level of appropriate control?
Levine goes on to note that, “Research shows that college students who have overinvolved parents are more likely to be depressed and to have low life satisfaction than students with more appropriately involved parents.” And let’s be honest — no overinvolved parent thinks or intends to contribute to their child’s depression and low life satisfaction. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, this is the case. “This pattern of protecting kids early in life and then being disappointed and finally furious when they don’t grow up has become one of the most common problems I see in my office.” Levine goes on to point out.
Practice Makes Progress
I certainly don’t have the answer for what age children should be allowed to go in the street by themselves. Or how high is too high to jump at the playground. But I do know that my kids will not get better at assessing and managing risk if they have never practice doing it themselves. They are not going to get it right every time; and I don’t either. Keener could have ended up in the hospital with a broken bone. He also could every time he zooms down the steps at home trying to fly — which is why it’s way too easy to fall into the role of overprotective parent! Just reminding myself that they need practice managing their own risk has been a good place for me to start.
Below is a famous list of Montessori age-appropriate chores. It was helpful to take a step back and identify some places around the house where I am absolutely stifling my kids’ growth and independence. When we see our kids every day, it’s hard to remember that they are constantly growing, changing, and capable of increased responsibilities. And that they are not going to get better at anything that I am not letting them practice.
In closing, I highly recommend Dr. Levine’s book, Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World. I read almost all books with a pen in hand and felt myself wanting to underline every other sentence in this one. While college feels like a looonggg way off for my crew, I know it will be here before I know it. And the last thing I want is to be contributing to their low life satisfaction and sending the message they are incapable of doing anything on their own.