Telling parents not to worry about their child is like telling a fish not to swim. Parents worry. It’s what we do. The problem is not with the fact that we worry; the problem arises when we try to eliminate our worry by limiting our children’s experience of the world. It is human to try to eliminate the things that make us anxious. But, in parenting, we are essentially expected to support and work towards the very thing that increases our worry the most: our children eventually being in the world without us! While it would be nice if we could teach our kids how to live while holding them snuggly in the safe cocoon of our arms forever, the truth is that we learn about life through living. Our children have to experience life, the good and the bad, in order to succeed. And in some way or another, they will do just that. And while they do it, we will worry.
I have come to the realization that much of parenthood is about tolerating worry. The balance is in knowing when to tolerate our worry and when it is a sign that we need to provide a mechanism of support. Sometimes we have to swallow our worry and let our kids fall. Sometimes our worry may signal that we need to put a pillow under them so their fall is a little softer. And sometimes it means we need to take them in our arms and move them to safety. Good parenting means providing a warm space, loving arms, an open heart and safe boundaries that children can rely on to support them through the trials and tribulations, successes and joys that make up life.
But how do we know when to take which approach? We can ask ourselves some basic questions.
1) Is this worry about me or them?
2) What will they lose if I take this experience from them?
3) Is this a natural developmental experience they should be having?
4) How big is their world now?
I imagine a bubble. When our children are infants we support them physically. The parent and child occupy a pretty tight bubble. They depend on us and we respond immediately to their needs. Their world is us and we are their bubble. When we are worried about their needs, our interventions are usually physical. We support their bodies, we move them to safety, we hold them tight. But as they grow, their naturally emerging process of becoming their own person pushes this bubble. It grows and starts to envelope other people, things, experiences outside of us. I imagine the parent standing on one side of the bubble and the child, slowing and fatefully pushing against the side of the bubble, expanding their world.
As this happens, our worry continues, but our responses change. The way we support our children, the type of safety nets we provide them and the way we encourage their interactions look different as our children grow. They don’t need us any less, they just need us differently. So, what does this look like?
- A toddler is exploring her world through climbing. One parent worries about the child falling and moves in to ease their own anxiety. “Be careful, don’t climb so high.” Maybe the parent physically stops the child from moving in a way she would naturally. Instead, another parent tolerates some worry, assesses the situation and allows the child to climb, but moves a shelf out of the way or places a mattress on the floor to ease a fall. The child is allowed to climb, in a safe way, and experiences a new relationship with herself and the world. She figures out she can do something she couldn’t do the day before. The world, the bubble, just got a little bigger.
- A preschooler wants to help mama by returning the measuring cup to the neighbor next door. This would require her to go outside, walk next door and stay out of the street without adult supervision. The parent worries and says, “No, you can’t go to the neighbor’s house by yourself.” The parent prohibits the child from accomplishing a new developmental task and gaining a little more independence. Instead, another parent assesses the situation, tolerates some worry and allows the child to walk next door unattended. Maybe the parent watches through the window or calls the neighbor to make sure they know the child is coming. The child embraces their new responsibility and returns full of pride and accomplishment. The world, the bubble, just got a little bigger.
- A school-age child wants to attend his first sleepover. The worried parent thinks the child isn’t emotionally ready for this and suggests that the child just go for dinner and then come home. The child feels anxious and insecure. Another parent tolerates their own worry and supports the child in the sleepover. The parent lets the child know he can call if he needs to, helps the child make a plan and processes some of the fears the child may be expressing. The parent also makes sure that the day after the sleepover is low-key and supportive for processing residual emotions. The child goes to the sleepover, experiences stress and anxiety AND has fun and success with his friends. The next day he struggles from being overtired and emotionally worn out from all the excitement, but the parent is there to support. The world, the bubble, just got a little bigger.
Parents worry about how kids will manage life at every stage, from wanting to protect toddlers from climbing to shielding middle schoolers from the harsh words of peers to minimizing the angst that comes from high school relationships. Parents are driven to eliminate not only their children’s pain, but also their own worry. But these “falls” are an important part of life. Without falling we can’t learn balance. Without anxiety we can’t learn calm. Without angst we can’t learn joy in relationships. The job of the parent is to tolerate worry and provide “just enough” protection so that our children can continue to push the bubble. We want their world, their bubble, to be as big as possible. We want it to be full of people and opportunity and experiences. We want it (the bubble, the world, our children) to never stop growing. And in order for that to happen, we have to tolerate the worry.