Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Learning to Fall

All this birthday-ing has had me waxing a little nostalgic of late. I've been looking at pictures and watching videos from the little one's babyhood and reflecting on how far we've both come since those early, sleep-deprived days.

Birth to age 3 is the stage of life where we acquire the most knowledge. We come out totally helpless and learn all of the basic skills required for life--talking, walking, feeding ourselves--in the space of a few short years. I'd also argue that the corresponding time in a woman's life--the transition from woman to mama--is a comparable time of development and learning. I mean, going from 8 uninterrupted hours a night to operating on a POW's sleep schedule is a hell of a learning curve.

One of the toughest lessons for a mama, and one that isn't learned in the first 3 years, is that, as much as we'd like to, we can't put bumpers on every corner in our children's lives. And that sometimes, by intervening, we do more harm than good, despite our best intentions.

The first time I realized this was almost exactly 2 years ago. I was in our backyard with the little one and a dear friend. We were playing on a blanket in the grass, enjoying the summer afternoon. Then, in a wobbly, wonderful moment, the little one pulled herself up and began to take her very first, unassisted steps, right toward me. My heart's wings were fluttering as my baby girl took 3 shaky steps, arms outstretched.

Then, the swaying started and I knew that she was about to fall. We were on a blanket, in the grass; a soft landing was assured. And yet, I couldn't stop myself from reaching out to catch her, to keep her from falling. As she fell into my waiting hands, one of my fingernails grazed her cheek, scratching her baby skin. She started crying, not because she fell, but because I hurt her, in an effort to keep her from falling.

The irony of the moment was apparent to me immediately. Worse, it was weeks before she worked up the courage to try the whole walking thing on her own again, presumably because she associated it with having her face scratched. If I had just let her take that necessary tumble, she would have been fine. And she probably would have pulled herself right back up and tried again.

This is one of the challenges of motherhood: knowing when to help and when to hold back. We can't solve every problem or catch every fall. And when we try, we might do some inadvertent damage along the way. Kids need to learn to rely on themselves, to solve their own problems--in a developmentally appropriate way, of course. By encouraging them to do for themselves, we help them build confidence. By letting them take a tumble or two, we help them learn how to pick themselves up and try again.

The instinct to save her from every skinned knee or broken heart is still strong. I need to remind myself regularly of that summer afternoon and how I need to trust my child to learn and trust the process of learning itself. As much as I'd like to spare her the heartache and difficulty that are that yang to life's happier yin moments, I know that preventing pain is impossible. The best I can do is teach her how strong she is, how capable and to help her learn the value of tenacity. If I can do this, she'll grow up and be able to catch herself when she falls, which is the best lesson of all.


Ruth said...

What a great story and perfect example of this very difficult aspect of parenting! I suppose maybe one in a million parents hits the balance just right.

Stace said...

What a great story! Its so true, and I am sure i have had many of those moments when i need to just step back, and let my boy learn for himself. :)