Hiking along the trail, steps behind my toddler, his two older brothers and dad just around the bend ahead, he stopped and sized up the rock in front of him. It came to his chest and he studied it for a bit. I stood, sipping my water and letting him think. ‘Mama I thinks we need to climb around this big guy!’
‘Ok, baby, let’s do it!’
He propped his little size 9 hiking boot up on the slope around the rock, threw his weight forward and climbed around it. I stayed at the bottom ready to catch him if it went badly. He stood at the top, now just a tad taller than me, arms reaching to the sky and shouted ‘Mama! I did it! I am a big rock climber! Mama! Look how tall I am up here!’ He was elated and his joy was shining the rest of the hike up. He had problem solved. He had used his body. He had conquered something he didn’t feel capable of. He was proud.
We stopped at the top to have a picnic and rest. I dished out hummus and fruit and we sat enjoying the views that seemed to stretch on forever. Eventually it was time to hike back down so we packed up our stuff, took a few pictures and headed back to the trail.
For most toddlers the hike back down is actually harder. They have a tendency to run and lose their footing, jump when they shouldn’t and slide on rocks because their little bodies lack refined control. This day was no exception. He slipped and landed on his bottom more than once, he wasn’t hurt but it wounded the pride he’d developed on the hike up. It dampened his confidence. Along came another hiker, he tried to wait patiently even though I told him we were happy to let him pass. He watched anxiously as I let my youngest try to figure out how to climb down another big rock. I was less than a foot from him explaining that we could go around it or climb down, that I would do whichever he felt would work for him. The man who I’d tried to wave around us couldn’t hold it in any longer, ‘Here buddy, I can help you down’
I met his eyes and told him nicely ‘he doesn’t need help, he needs time to problem solve, why don’t you go around us, we may take a minute and I don’t want to hold you up’. He mumbled something and hiked on ahead of us, obviously annoyed that I didn’t just hoist the kid down myself. The truth is I wasn’t standing beside him unwilling or unable to help. I was standing there to guard against danger and to allow him the space to develop a plan. I want my children to experience a full range of problems and emotions while I am here to steward them through it. I could have helped him down and he would have learned that I knew how. I want him to learn that he can face a challenge and figure it out. I am here, if things get rough but not to do it for him.
Somewhere in the age of social media we got uncomfortable with letting kids fail. The problem is failure, pain, disappointment, anger, jealousy, resentment and frustration are just as present in adulthood as joy, happiness, love, peace and accomplishment. If we only allow them to practice emotions that feel good to feel while they are with us they will become adults who never learned to work through hard times, deal with disappointment, problem solve and trust their own judgement. Fixing their childhood problems for them sets them up for depression when they find out life is not all sunshine and roses.
So yes, climbing up and down a mountain seems like a good enough reason to do the hard stuff for him, but the next time we went hiking he knew what to do. He learned. He problem solved. He trusted his judgement. We were there just in case, to steward if necessary but not to do the work for him because we’re not just parents of children, we’re parents of future adults.