When our children were young I had to train my husband to allow them to fall off a piece of furniture that was wobbly, rather than reaching out to steady it. He was horrified when I stood by, just watching, as our child climbed atop a stool that was clearly not stable. My reasoning: this time I am here, keeping an eye, there to catch if a very bad fall looks likely; next time I might not be. I want my children to learn to assess their own safety. I watched with amazement as other mothers rounded every corner (with special plastic curves for sharp edges) and jammed every door (with special gadgets to stop doors from shutting on little fingers), trying to make their toddlers world safe. But the world is not safe and those toddlers were made so very unsafe by their own naivety as soon as they left the carefully controlled environment of their own home. Those toddlers had not learned to watch out for sharp table tops at their head level, or to keep their little fingers away from doors. Those toddlers thought that the world was curved and soft and stable. It is not. Not at Grandma’s, or at the newsagents, or at the holiday apartment. My children, however, would know to test something’s stability before climbing atop, they would know to carry glass carefully, they would know that zips can pinch. And they didn’t know these things because I peppered their childhood with constant, “Be careful!” “Don’t run, it’s slippery” “Don’t climb up there, you’ll fall.” “Don’t touch, you’ll burn yourself.” No my children learned by slipping and bruising and slight scalding. Then they took good care; no-body wants to hurt themselves.
So, now I am faced with a teenager. Instead of high walls and hot pans, it is sex and cigarettes and late nights and missed homework deadlines. Why do I find it so much harder to trust him to learn for himself now? Of course I fear the consequences of mistakes, but is it still not true that he will learn best by his own experience?
And just the same as I might alert a toddler to the possibility of something being unsafe “That looks wobbly.” or “Thinner branches aren’t as strong as those thick ones.” so too I will inform my teenagers of the dangers in their environment. But then, if I believe my own theory, I must step back and allow them to experiment and discover for themselves.
Perhaps I am more competent than I feel. Maybe I can apply what worked before: To stay present. To observe with vigilance. To offer vital information. But then only to interfere if absolutely necessary.
Now all I need to work out is what constitutes absolutely necessary…