raising a cautious child

My child does not climb trees. She watches others, peers at the tree, looks around. She may try a little – if you tell her she can’t she will believe you and she will walk away – and she will climb back down the first moment her feet leave the earth.

We will do it all again the next day.

Part way up she will stop, suddenly aware of her feet touching bark, not earth, and cling to the branch. She will ask for help to get back down (“it’s okay sweetie, just put your foot down and slide back to where you started”). Her face will tense and her arms will lock.

And she is barely knee-height off the ground.

Child's foot in school shoes with grey socks, perched in a tree close to the ground

Yet, when she has scoped a situation and believes herself competent? She will make her own lunch, smearing sour cream and sprinkling cheese atop a wrap. She will peel a carrot and chop up mushrooms and tomatoes and celery for dinner. She will steadily, face serious and focussed, bring the match to the kindling and light the winter fire with her grandmother. She will pelt up the stairs with her eyes closed, or balancing on one foot on each step, poised to fly.

Sometimes she falls. When she decided she could swim and tried to follow me to the deep end and paddled madly, sinking, until the adults in the pool turned and saved her. When she burnt her arm, trying to flip pancakes while we cooked breakfast. When she sprained her ankle badly, leaping about on slippery tiles. Then we are back at the foot of a tree, making tiny gains.

Child's hand touching a tree

It’s hard, sometimes, watching three year olds climb past her as she labours up a slide. I remember she used to do that all the time, but fell once, so now is filled with doubt.

It’s harder, watching her replicate this in social situations. I used to say she held a grudge – I stopped, because that isn’t fair, isn’t the whole truth. She was two, or three, or four, is five now, and she had learnt a lesson. Maybe too well, but she had learnt and that’s what she is meant to do as she moves through the world. She had learnt that her cousin will happily hit her in the face if they didn’t like the way the game was played, and ignore her as she cried. She had learnt that while her classmate never hurt her, she would instead hit her friend. She had learnt that her cousins’ first allegiance was to each other. So it is harder, then, to say “sweetie, it’s okay, just try again”.

I am happy to expose her to risk, climbing the tree the school keeps making noises about being out of bounds but has never made a ruling. To climb up the slide. To handle a cleaver and a frypan, scissors and matches, sewing needles and driving down the long rural driveway to grandma’s house. To throw herself into the water and trust it to buoy her upwards, to trust in still, small movements. I am happy to stand with my arms outstretched so she will feel safe enough to try, to show her over and over how to hold the knife and the scissors and the needle, to say “one more try, then we’ll find something else to do”.

I can’t bring myself to expose her to the kind of risk that says “take the hits, they’re you’re friends and your family and they love you and they don’t mean it, just turn the other cheek and go back in there”. To say “we don’t hurt people we love in our family, except for the people that do, and you cannot hit them back or hurt them”. To say “we value kindness” and walk her back into the lion’s den with that wrapped around her like armour made of glass. Beautiful, fragile, and liable to hurt her as much as them.

I am never sure what the solution truly is, but I know I am unwilling to sacrifice her caution, her kindness, for it.

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