I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was sitting at the park with one of my neighbors. Me, a new dad, and him, a seasoned one with his fourth on the way. We were chatting while the kids played when abruptly his youngest, a boy of barely two, took off up the biggest slide in the park. To a new father that slide looked like Kilamajaro, but to my neighbor it wasn’t a big deal.
“Aren’t you going to get him off of there?” I asked, barely masking my concern that he wouldn’t survive the next two minutes.
“Nah, he’s fine,” was the casual response.
As I sat in silent judgement swearing to heaven upon high that my child would never be allowed to do such a thing on his own, I waited for the inevitable tears.
Finally… nothing, he went down the slide like a pro.
Flash forward seven years.
Right now, my 3-year-old is holding a penny and looking at an electrical outlet with a somewhat quizzical look on his face. I’m not yet sure how I’m going to let this play out, but I can guarantee there is going to be a teachable moment in there somewhere.
Quite the contrast to the new dad who was afraid of the slide.
In hindsight, maybe my neighbor was trying to teach me something. He was further down the parenting journey than I was and had learned how to prioritize his fears. He was as concerned about his kid’s safety as I was, but he knew his son was already up there and in motion. There was nothing he could do at that point but hope for the best.
I still want to be the dad who believes he can insulate his children from everything, who thinks it’s possible to remove all harm, whether it be in the form of falling off of the slide or getting feelings hurt at school.
But seven years and three more kids has taught me that I can’t. Not only is it no longer possible for me to be that guy, all semblance of first-year-parent-naivete is long gone, but it also is not fair to the kids either.
Life will provide a multitude of lessons, many of which they will have to learn on their own.
Sure, there are still plenty of times when I, as a parent, need to step in and help my kids (like taking the penny away from my little one, which I did), but there are just as many times when I need to stand back and watch them learn through direct experience.
Chris Donnelly is a working dad with four children. You can read him every Thursday on momaha.com
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