This summer I nannied a three-year-old in New England while I worked on my Beyond Mama Bear book. As always, hanging out with a toddler reminded me of hanging out with a teenager; they are so similar in so many ways. It was an excellent meditation on the delicate balance parents must strike. Every day, it's a fine line between supporting our children and letting go when they are ready.
One day I took my little charge to the park. On the longish stroll to the playground, she asked me to walk behind her instead of holding her hand. As she approached the tallest slide, she soberly handed me her stuffed dog and began to climb. She shunned my attempts to help her—I can do it myself!—and carefully negotiated her way up the ladder. I nervously protected her from falling as well as I could without her knowing; soon she climbed quite beyond my reach. As she clambered high above my head I was struck by how apt a metaphor the moment was for the whole parenting enchilada. If she tumbled from her happy perch—so high above me—I would be hard-pressed to help her. I knew it and perhaps she knew it, too. If I had stopped her from climbing too high, however, it would have been like clipping her wings (and thwarting her independence).
Instead of fretting or telegraphing my un-ease, I tried to shout encouraging things to her. I asked if she was proud of herself. She was! Very! I asked if she wanted to come down soon. She did not! I offered to join her if she wanted company. No, thank you! She sat at the tippy-top of the playground climber, gazing out at the world, narrating her own little reverie, calling down to me occasionally just to be sure I was still paying attention. At one point she sang the entire Lollipop Guild song from The Wizard of Oz at the top of her lungs. Eventually, she came barreling down the corkscrew slide, laughing and breathless from her adventure. As we left, she paused to look back at the mountain of her accomplishment. “I climbed to the top. All by myself!” she confirmed. “Mommy will be so excited!” And she let me hold her hand part of the way home.
That moment at the playground when toddlers climb out of our grasp is a premonition of the teenaged years. As they climb beyond our reach we are scared but we know we have to let them do it. The sense of accomplishment they earn is worth the risk. Why is climbing to the top of the slide so important? Why is anything worth the risk of bodily harm? Because it is their job to develop coping skills. To learn resilience and self-regulation. To push themselves to the limit, to be frightened, to conquer their own fear and thrive.
And it’s our job as parents to facilitate the whole amazing (frustrating, scary, mind-numbing) process. I promise, when they grow up to be people we actually like, who do well and do good in the world, Mommy will be so excited. Indeed! Shine on, parents of teenagers -- together, we can find the balance to takes to help our kids grow up, away from us, right into the best version of themselves.
[To read more, check out Fish, Tears, Prayers: Lessons in Letting Teenagers Go. For more on how much teens are like toddlers, see Handle with Care. And for inspiration on walking that fine line, please read Rock + Hard Place = Parenting. ]