Why being protective parents could be more about our own anxieties than ours kids’, writes Rich Hathway.
Seeing our children grow up is a wonderful thing. We meet our children in the first seconds of their lives and they are at once both perfect and completely helpless. As they grow so do we, every new experience teaching both parent and child something new. Our children look to us to make the decisions, to know the right way to do things, to care for them correctly. We don’t always get it right, particularly as first-time parents, because there is no substitute for experience and every child is different.
We may look like the all powerful, all knowledgeable grown-up to our kids but we know we’re winging it as much as they are most of the time.
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When they’re babies, most decisions are easy. Feed them when they’re hungry, put them in clothes appropriate to the weather, play peek-a-boo for an hour straight, try to sleep when they do.
But as our children get older they become more independent. My son is six and while my nights of worrying about him getting drunk in the pub are a few years away yet, I am starting to deal with a big parenting dilemma. When to let go. Or more specifically, when to trust my son’s choices over my own desires. This problem arises precisely because I met him in his first few helpless seconds of life. In that moment my fatherly instinct was also born, and my son was indelibly marked in my mind as a baby. He will always be a baby – my baby – to me.
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I need to admit that I’m an anxious parent. I would like my parental caution to be understandably prudent and normal, but sometimes it does spill over into anxious fretting about worst-case scenario situations. I have no desire to spend hours on end in A&E because my child has sustained an injury. I was the same as a kid myself. I saw no reason to risk injury just for the sake of fun. I was 19 when I broke my first bone – and that was my little toe. It was my own fault; my cabaret costume was ill thought out and the skateboard ran over my naked foot (that’s a story for another time though).
My point is, I was never a daredevil as a kid and I don’t want my son to hurt himself. It tears me apart when he’s ill and I want to shield him from harm. I want this to be responsible parenting but there may be times when I stop him doing things that he’s fine with – climbing, charging around, jumping off thing – but are making me anxious.
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Should I let him go for it? I’m not suggesting that I abdicate all responsibility, but perhaps I shouldn’t be hovering under the climbing frame, coiled and ready for action like a firefighter waiting to catch a helpless kitten. But maybe I should. Maybe staying close to my kid in the playground, keeping a watchful eye over him, is the right thing to do. I just don’t know.
Every kid is different and as parents we know what our children are capable of. I have a pretty good handle on my son’s climbing skills so I’m there for him, gently suggesting that his desire to reach the top of a climbing frame may not match his ability, and I’m not fit enough to get up there and carry him down. Good parenting, right? I don’t know.
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Maybe I’m saving him from a confidence-zapping experience as he clings in terror to the climbing frame, unable to move in either direction. But maybe I’m denying him the chance to try. The chance to do it. Maybe my gentle suggestions are conditioning him to stay within his comfort zone. Maybe I’m actually restricting his growth. As the writer John. A. Shedd once wrote, “A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.”
I know that doing everything for my son teaches him nothing. I know that we all learn more from our failures than we ever do from our successes. I know it’s not about how many times you fall over, it’s how many times you get up. I know all of this but he’s my baby and it’s my job to protect him.
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As he gets older the perceived dangers will change, the factors becoming more external. I won’t have to worry about him falling off his bike, but he’ll be cycling to school on his own. My son will know whether he can climb the tree that his mates are climbing but they’ll be playing in the woods unsupervised. The world is a dangerous place.
Or is it? Is it as dangerous as it seems to be if you watch the news? Probably not. Is it more dangerous than when I was playing in the woods with my mates in the 1980s? Probably not. Twenty-four hour news channels and all-encompassing technology means we hear about every terrible thing that happens everywhere. Between 1982 and 1989 there were eight mass shootings in America that resulted in 79 casualties and 88 injures, but I doubt my parents heard about any of them.
So, maybe I should turn off the news. Maybe I shouldn’t worry about a broken bone here or there. Maybe I should know how to stop my own anxieties interfering with my son’s development, if indeed they are. Maybe as the all-powerful, all knowledgeable grown up I should have this all figured out. But I’m winging it as much as my son is. Maybe I’ll just need to put some money aside for his therapy instead.