Trust is amazing. It says so much with so little. It opens doors for opportunities and relationships and experiences. The more I explore the topic of parenting, both professionally and personally, the more I come to believe that trust is a central issue that impacts both child and parent development. Do we trust ourselves as parents? Do we trust our children? Do we trust our partners? What does it look like when we engage in relationships from a place of trust and how does the feeling of being trusted (or not) impact our decisions and experiences? An experience in the park the other day brought this home for me.
The rule in our family is that climbing is an individual activity. If you want to climb a tree or a jungle gym or a wall, you can. But you have to do it yourself. And you have to get yourself down. I will not lift you up or hold your body. It is your job to listen to your body and keep yourself safe. If it feels safe for you to climb higher, and it works for your body, then it must be the right decision. If it doesn’t work, if your leg just won’t reach or it doesn’t feel safe, then it must not be the right time or place for you to climb.
This rule is very important to our family. I want my children to learn to trust their bodies and their instincts. I want them to learn their own limits and feel their own challenges and revel in their own successes. I also notice that when I break the rule and help them do something, they are more likely to fall!
Yes, it’s true. I have actually tested it. When I notice my child climbing and calling for help, I make a point to move away rather than closer. I want my children to be aware that they are in full control and need to be thoughtful about their bodies. When I move closer, they trust me to do it for them. They trust I will catch them and they are more likely to let go, fall backward, or move without thinking. Their trust in me outweighs their trust in themselves. Almost without fail, when I move away, I see one of two things: either they move slowly and thoughtfully, climbing in a way that keeps themselves safe and they get where they want on their own volition (success!), or they move slowly and thoughtfully, realize they are out of their league and it isn’t safe and they make their way down (success!). Either way, they listen to their bodies, assess the situation and make the best decision for themselves. The value of this is priceless. The message is twofold: I let them know that I trust them and I give them the time and space to trust themselves. It is so wonderful and rewarding to watch them as they revel in their autonomy and feel good about their own movements.
The other day at the park, this process was in motion. My children were climbing. My oldest was attempting to climb up a structure in a tricky way. He called for help and I simply said, “Wow, you’re trying to climb up in a tricky way. I wonder what you are going to do?” He asked for me to “spot” him and I reminded him that, while I was willing to stand under him for support, I wouldn’t help him climb. “I don’t want you to help me climb,” he said. “I want to do it myself!” He struggled for about 20 minutes. He grunted and whined and even cried a little. An outsider may have thought he was in distress, but I knew he was working through it. I also knew that he would find his way down if it became too challenging. Another parent, whom I was chatting with, reached out to try and help him. When I asked her not to help him, she looked at me a little critically, as if I were somehow leaving him hanging. In fact, I was leaving him hanging. He heard me tell her to not help him and he added (through his grunts) that he could do it himself. I saw that she was skeptical, but I trusted him and I trusted myself.
We were all rewarded for our patience when he made it to the top, spread out his arms and yelled, “Look at me! I made it to the top the tricky way!” His pride was overwhelming! He immediately swung down, went directly back to the starting point, and did it again. I asked him whether he still needed a spotter for support. “Nope, I got this,” he said. The second time, it took him only ten minutes. The third time, it took him five minutes and then he was going up and down more quickly than I could follow.
While this was going on, his younger brother had observed and, as usual, decided that he also wanted to climb. I knew that his body wouldn’t stretch as far and that climbing up this way would be nearly impossible. I knew he wanted to do it and I knew he would ask for help. And that is exactly what happened. And, in my typical response, I stepped back and told him he would need to figure it out for himself.
I have to admit that my anxiety always shoots up a bit. I could tell that my decision was making the other woman very nervous. She made it clear that she thought my decision was dangerous and that she did not trust my parenting style in this situation. In fact, she asked, “Are you going to let him climb that?” As my son started to try to climb, I reminded him to be thoughtful about his body one last time. Then I forced myself to let him work it out. She gasped and reached out to grab him. He looked a little wobbly and I started to question myself. Her lack of trust in me made me question and doubt myself. What if he got hurt? What if my parenting decision isn’t the best one? I wondered if maybe I should have either told him he couldn’t do it, or helped him to the top. I quieted my mind and again asked her to let him do it on his own. I told him that I trusted him and I knew that he was thoughtful about his body.
And he worked through it. He climbed a little bit, cried a little bit and then made his way down. “It’s too tall for me,” he said. “Bummer,” I replied. “Watch what I can do over here!” he called as he ran to climb an area he had already mastered. I breathed deeply and reveled in his success. He had tried something, found his own limit and kept himself safe. My trust in him had allowed him to explore this on his own. Success doesn’t always mean making it to the top.
What I noticed was how strongly the woman’s basic distrust of my decision had impacted me. I noticed how much I had questioned myself, my child, and the situation. And I realized how true this must be for our children as well. When we send the message, “I trust you and I’m here to support you,” we open the door for them to take charge of themselves and learn how to negotiate the world. The process of climbing becomes the experience, rather than just a way to get to the top. In the same way, the process of allowing children to climb becomes the experience. Rather than just putting my child on the top of the jungle gym and then having to get him down again, I got to witness my child developing autonomy, learning his limits, exploring his body in space and time, figuring out what feels right for him, pushing himself past his comfort level, and also being secure enough to know when to back down. Amazing!
Maybe, because I trusted him to know his own body, he will be more comfortable with his own limits.
Maybe, because he is learning to be comfortable with his own limits, he will stand up to peer pressure.
Maybe, because he knows I am there to support him, he will come to me for guidance and “spotting” rather than solutions.
Maybe, because we trust each other, growing up will be a little bit less painful and scary for both of us.
Of course, there is risk in this. Calculated risk. Would I have let him climb if the ground had been covered in broken glass or if he had been on the side of an abyss to nowhere? No. But here is the thing: because I give him room to consider those types of things, I doubt he would have chosen to climb with those dangers there. Yes, I have to consider the overall safety, but I also have to swallow my fear and let my children figure things out for themselves. After all, that is what growing up is all about.