Two encounters with my kids have shaped the way I think about parenting. On the surface they were run-of-the-mill events: one happened at a playground and the other in our backyard. But both had a profound impact and have stuck with me ever since. Probably because I almost screwed them both up.
The first happened three years ago. We were visiting my wife’s parents in Ontario and I took Xander, our oldest, to the playground down the street. He tried to climb the monkey bars but he was only two, not quite big or strong enough to pull himself up. He grew more and more frustrated until finally I tried to guide him away.
“Xander, you can’t do it,” I said. “You’re too little.”
His eyes welled up and his lip quivered, and I realized it was the absolute worst thing I could have said to him. “I CAN do it!” he shouted, on the verge of tears. “I’m NOT too little!”
It hit me then that I don’t ever want to hold my kids back, to teach them to be afraid just because something is new or different or a little bit dangerous. So I said, “OK. You’re right. You want to do it, you go ahead.” And I stood behind him to give him a boost if he needed it, or to catch him if he fell. When he got to the top, with little help from me, he beamed like he’d scaled Mount Kilimanjaro.
The second event happened about two months ago. Shawna was away with the oldest and youngest, and I had the two middle kids out in the yard on a sunny-but-soggy April day. It was close to dinnertime, I was crabby, and when I saw Oscar lying in the wet grass I almost snapped at him to get up before he got all filthy.
Then an incredibly sad thought hit me: “Do I really want to be the kind of person who tells a three-year-old to get out of the mud?” So I lay down next to him and we watched the clouds, which I probably hadn’t done since I was four or five myself. We talked about how they looked like terrible dragons, and then we got up and went for ice cream.
I’ve learned that my boys need a healthy dose of mud and danger. In the wise words of Miss Frizzle, they need to “take chances, get messy and make mistakes.” The two oldest are covered in bumps and scrapes from faceplanting off their bikes or tumbling on the gravel or, as they attempted this afternoon, launching themselves from the couch like human cannonballs and colliding in mid-air. They’re the kids who give other parents heart attacks because they’re jumping off the slides or surfing in the grocery cart. Usually I’m OK with this. I love watching them master new skills, invent new games, and burst into maniacal laughter.
And what they mostly need from me is to be there—for a push, a safety net, a cloud-watching companion, whatever. Like life, 80 per cent of parenting is just showing up. I still fail miserably at it sometimes; there are moments or hours or sadly even whole days when I’m too tired, too cranky, too distracted, and so I spend all my time telling them to hurry up and quiet down. Saying no. I stifle their explosive, infectious potential in a dozen tiny ways.
The great thing about young kids is that they forgive and forget in a heartbeat. They let me make mistakes too, and when I blow it they’ll still come back in 20 minutes and ask me to build a Lego garage or play Crazy Eights or be a bad guy so they can cut off my limbs with foam swords.
All I have to do is be there.