On our road trip, Will was about two-thirds of the way up one of the climbing walls at TopJump in Pigeon Forge when he started to panick. He froze. He didn’t want to move. He said he was scared.
When he eventually climbed back down, I explained to him how the roping system and climbing harness worked. I lifted him up four or five feet off the ground. Then, I let go. He gently floated down to the ground. He smiled.
He climbed back up to the same spot, about eight or nine feet off the ground, where he froze the first time. He panicked again. I climbed up a few feet. He thought I was coming up to rescue him. I smiled. I gave him a gentle shove off the wall.
For a nanosecond, he had a look of surprise and a look of horror. Then, a big grin as the rope slowly let out. He gently floated down to the ground.
He immediately climbed back up. He never made it to the top, but he went higher than he had and he didn’t panic.
In recent months the boys have spent much less time in paid care than they did when I was travelling to Philadelphia two or three days per week. No more after-school care for Will. I have been picking Lucas up earlier from daycare. Scheduled after school activities were trimmed from four days per week to two. Last month neither of the boys was enrolled in summer camp or daycare. This month, except for a few hours in the morning, they are home with me.
I have been thinking a lot recently about the little things that a parent can do that a nanny, babysitter, camp counselor, or teacher can’t. Things like yanking your kid off a climbing wall. Or letting them go to the restroom in a restaurant for first time. Or, letting them scale a decent-sized rock face during a hike. Or, telling them to play for a few hours (no TV or devices). Or, ignoring them and taking no notice of their arguing, low-level fighting, and protestations that they are bored. Or, letting them fight things out a bit.
I can’t help but wonder how many of the problems that kids and young adults face today reflect the fact that fewer and fewer kids have these kinds of experiences during early and middle childhood. Is the increasing fear of failure a consequence of kids being sheltered from little fears and small failures early in life? Is the high level of social anxiety adolescents and teenagers report today a result of kids having less unsupervised time with siblings, friends, and foes? Is the lack of independence and curiosity I witnessed in my college students a result of our kids being given less freedom and independence during childhood than previous generations?
One of the things I have realized over the last year is that it is difficult — if not impossible — to outsource your kids’ exposure to risk, failure, boredom, conflict, etc. to others. If you want your kid to become competent in the outdoors, it is only you who can let them take a good fall on a steep trail, or climb a rock face that looks a little too high, or take an extra step towards the edge of a bluff. If you want to prepare your kids for the sometimes rough-and-tumble and give-and-take nature of adolescent and teenage friendships and peer relations, it is only you who can let them argue, fight, negotiate, and resolve conflicts without adult intervention when they are younger. If you want your kids to become independent and self-directed, it is only you who can give them the large amounts of unstructured and unsupervised time that is necessary for them to alternate between play, experimentation, boredom, invention, daydreaming, building, designing, and hopefully eventually discovering their interests and passions.