I have been in the business of doling out advice to parents for years, so I recognize that look on a parent’s face – the one that says, in the simplest terms, help.
The feelings behind that face are as diverse as the people who wear it, and it has been my job to absorb and listen, assure and refer. I have said to too many parents to count that whatever it is, their children are going through completely normal and expected challenges and changes, and that things will swing back into balance with the right supports. I have probably helped Dr. Wendy Mogul to sell more than a few copies of The Blessings of a Skinned Knee. Why is it, then, that when my own child faced a recent challenge, I crumbled?
It’s probably because when it’s your own kid, it’s harder. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Take the story that follows as an example. My 11-year old daughter recently celebrated her birthday at a local climbing gym, where she and her friends had two whole hours to scamper up walls on auto-belay. It was a joy to watch them exert themselves, laughing as they pulled their bodies up with their own strength. While the adults talked and watched from the sidelines, the girls told each other, “You got this!” And they did.
But then, something changed. The girls huddled together at the base of a difficult climbing wall and made whooping noises as one of them – my daughter – began to make her way up what looked to me like an impossible path for her. My daughter is not yet tall and she is not yet big. That’s not to say that she is not yet strong. But the spread of her along a vertical axis is not substantial.
For this climb, she had to be supported by a counselor who would use her own body weight to keep my daughter from plummeting, dangling, or smacking straight into the wall when she missed her mark or lost her footing, which she did, over – and over – and over. The friendly chatter of parents stilled as we all watched my kid fail, try, fail try, and fail again.
“Look at her go,” one parent said in awe. “She’s something else,” said another. But all I saw was the tremble in her arms, the look of desperate determination on her face. I could practically hear – no, feel – the scrape of her fingertips and nails as her reach fell just short of the hold. It seemed like she had been up there for hours and would never come down. I was having a visceral, bodily reaction to watching my child dangling in the air. She was holding back tears and so was I.
I moved to intervene. Whether the intervention was for her benefit or my own, I don’t know. But intervene I did. “One more try,” I shouted up to her, “and then you come down.” She peered down at me, met my eyes, and said nothing. For all the looks I have seen on other peoples’ and other peoples’ kids’ faces over the years, this was one I had never seen on a child of mine. The look said, I’m doing this. I am climbing to the top of this wall.
Watching her force her exhausted body up and over the threshold to the final level was scary. But if you have any doubt in your mind that she did it, you are probably more like me than you would want to admit. She climbed to the top and then triumphed all the way down.
I wish I could take credit for giving her that final push by telling her to come down, but that would be wishful thinking indeed. When it’s your own kid, it’s harder to do the things that kids need us to do – keep quiet when they are in the middle of a challenge; be ready to hug them close when they have exhausted themselves in pursuit of their goals; and then let them go – quickly – to meet their next horizon. It’s harder, but with the right supports in place, it’s possible.