My son, Meacham, is a climber. I mean that literally. He works as an arborist, climbing trees for a living. This comes as no surprise to anyone who knew Meacham as a kid. He climbed from the day he learned how to walk, which was early at 10 months. Meacham has always been on the move. He’s the faster, higher, stronger kid. He climbed couches, climbed fences, climbed jungle gyms and, of course, climbed trees. The higher, the better. The scarier and riskier, the better.
But, here’s the thing. For Meacham, it was neither scary nor risky. Leaping from the couch to the ottoman to the floor and back again, traversing from one branch to the next was simply a challenge, a skill-building exercise. He wanted to test the limits of his body and mind. His love of physicality and puzzle-solving came together in most everything he did. His adventures on the playground made the other moms nervous. Oft times, I was admonished for “allowing” him to climb that high. “He could fall,” they’d say. Sometimes, they went direct to Meacham and would command him to come down, as if he was one of their own. Equally, between Meacham and me, their words fell on deaf ears.
I learned fairly early on in Meacham’s life that if I wanted him to be independent, truly independent, it meant letting go of my own fears and trusting his instincts. Not easy but necessary. There was trial and, yup, there was error. He did fall out of a tree once – the branch he was relying on to push him up to the next level was dry and rotten. It broke free of the trunk and landed on the hard ground below at about the same time Meacham got there. Worst thing that happened? Meacham recalls “Some kid on the ground was laughing and fell on me, basically”, briefly embedding his upper teeth in Meacham’s skull. Blood, yes. Stitches, no. I’m not sure how the other kid made out but I bet no one ever admonished him for standing under a tree.
A few synonyms for independent that make sense to me are individuality, freedom, self-governance, and autonomy. Antonyms that give me the shivers are conformism, predictability, and compliance. I knew I wanted my children to be independent and mostly by that I meant for them to know their own minds and to be comfortable in their own skin. But how do you teach that?
Our society has a weird sense of what makes us independent. Looking for synonyms of the word dependent, you’ll find reliant upon, needy, and helpless. It’s like being dependent is a dirty word and no one wants the stink of that attached to them. It exists in the same world where teaching a child to swim is best accomplished by simply throwing them into the deep end of the pool and hope for the best. I think it’s important here to distinguish independence from pure survival instinct.
When Meacham was 10 years old, he wanted to ride the subway in Toronto on his own. This was a big ask and it scared me but I gave it some thought. We had been taking public transit together (and, by then, with his younger sister, Pilar) every weekday, twice a day, for about a year. From our apartment to their school, we took a bus, a subway, transferred to another subway, and then walked a few blocks. It took about 1.5 hours. Meacham was well-aware of the route.
Did I simply say no because that was the easiest and most comfortable (for me) thing to do? Nope. I said yes, but with a caveat. We would learn to do it together until I was satisfied that he was safe on his own. Meacham agreed. We broke the trip up into smaller chunks. He could stand away from us on the platform. He could get on a different car on the same train as Pilar and me. He was instructed to get off the train at the next station, as would we, and wait for the next train to the next station and so on. In this way, Meacham could feel independent, he got to rely on himself, and if he got into any trouble, I was always close by. I also made sure he had money for the payphone (no cell phones yet), and a bit of money in his pocket. We did this for about a week, maybe two, until I felt safe. It was not about Meacham feeling safe. He had no reason to doubt his own instincts; he'd been honing them for 10 years. It was I who was being challenged, once again, to trust Meacham.
The hidden advantage to managed risk-taking is that our children learn to take risks, to challenge themselves and to explore their world in a way that does not put them at actual risk or in actual danger. The operative verb here is learn. Allow them to explore freely but within managed limits. This provides them the freedom to explore while creating the safety in which to do it. Baby steps, quite literally, so that they become familiar with their own limits. There is absolutely no shame in being dependent on another until you learn to do it for yourself. That’s why we have parents and grandparents, and teachers and older siblings. Their learned wisdom and guidance is instrumental in our ability to become independent and self-reliant.
Learning to swim, stroke by stroke, is not the same as fighting not to drown.
All good parents want to protect their children. It is in our nature and our biology. And, luckily, when our children are small, we get plenty of opportunity to protect. We don’t let them run into the street. We teach them how to approach a big dog so we don’t frighten it. We dress them warmly in winter. We don’t leave them in the car in the summer heat. Every day, many opportunities. But what about when they grow older and want some autonomy? When they are 10 and want to take the subway solo? When they are 13 and want to start dating? When they are 16 and want to learn how to drive? When they are 17 and leaving home for University or, in Meacham’s case, leaving home for South America?
How will we know they are safe and making the right decisions? We will know because we were brave enough in their younger years to learn to trust their instincts (and our own). We can feel confident that they know how to be independent in their own world, the one that no longer includes us on a daily basis. The opportunity to protect them from sticking their fingers in electrical sockets “just to see what happens” is gone. But, if we’ve done it right, they won’t feel the need to take that risk.