Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
-“Stairway to Heaven,” Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, performed by Led Zeppelin
Being a parent means striking the right balance between staying close to one’s child and giving them room to explore freely. Stay too close, and you’re a helicopter parent. Give them too much room, and you’re neglectful. It’s a dicey equation, to say the least, compounded further by whatever end of the spectrum toward which our own parents tended to gravitate. To compensate for excessive parental hovering, we might either swing our own parenting pendulums too far toward the “free-range” camp, or repeat our own parents’ extreme closeness, perhaps barring our children from exploring the world independently.
For this reason, it’s often hard to know how close to be to our children, especially as they grow from blobby little infants to whirlwinds of toddlers and antsy young children.
Case in point, once I nearly let my own child fall down the stairs.
Before I continue, allow me to explain why I’m choosing to share with you such a sensitive story, one that exposes me in a rather embarrassing, unflattering light as a parent. Indeed, when I showed the first draft of this post with my husband, he wondered if I really wanted to be so candid about this experience. I had to think about his question for a moment – did I really want to air this particular piece of dirty laundry? Even as I cringed at the thought of making myself so vulnerable, my response was an unequivocal yes, for some really important reasons.
I think we need to come out of the collective closet of parenting shame. Let me be clear, I’m not advocating letting children fall down the stairs – I wish the incident I’m about to relate had never happened at all, but I’d prefer my mistake to offer words of both caution and comfort to other parents who are just scrabbling along, trying to do their best to keep their children alive and healthy.
It’s an unfortunate byproduct of living in captivity that many of us don’t get to see other parents at work, helping children navigate life’s complexities throughout their many stages of development. You see, throughout our species’s early evolution, we lived in small groups of hunter gatherers, witnessing births, deaths, and everything in between. Only relatively recently have we transitioned into a fairly rare way of living, as compared to the majority of Homo Sapiens’s history: that of the nuclear family living alone, in isolation from extended family members and other family groups.
Compounding this deviation from the environment in which our brains and bodies evolved to thrive is the feeling that each of us is all alone, having to figure out this business of human living from scratch. A hunter gatherer would have no need for parenting tips – they would have a deeply embedded, cultural sense of the interrelationship between not only parents and children, but also people and tribe, humans and the earth. It’s only now in our disconnected world that we must actively reach out of our isolation and seek community and connection with our tribespeople in order to break free from shame and cultivate a sense of well-being and purpose as parents and people.
And that’s why I’m going to tell you about the time I nearly let my child fall down the stairs.
So, on with the story.
My own parents tended more toward hovering than laissez-faire, and as a result I was determined to allow my daughter plenty of room to explore. I felt extremely proud of this, finding support for my self-named “long-leash parenting” style in the RIE philosophy and in Diane Reynolds‘s Mindful Parenting Group paradigm. It was going pretty well – if my daughter could do something, I let her. Before she was a steady walker, my daughter learned to amble up stairs at the playground in order to barrel headfirst down the slide. I nurtured her budding spirit of exploration whenever I could. Until one day, my long-leash approach backfired in a terrifying, heart-stopping way.
A little after she turned one year old, my daughter was super into playing with balls. This had been one of her first words; round stone fruit were all called “ball,” and balls had been the theme (and party favor) at her first birthday party. So on one morning excursion to the drug store, we made a special purchase of two big, extra bouncy balls, one pink and one blue. She was ecstatic with her purchase, juggling them awkwardly in her stroller as we walked home.
I had a bag full of groceries, a purse, and two balls to get up the stairs to our apartment, in addition to my toddling daughter, and figured we could just hulk our way inside. I grabbed our purchases and started up the stairs, my daughter crawling up beside me. She demanded one of the balls as she made her way upwards, and my independent-leaning voice said, “Sure, why not? I’m having a hard time holding it anyway.” As we neared the top of the stairs, my husband peeked his head out the door to greet us. I beamed at our daughter and her delight with her new acquisition – as I looked down to her, my blood froze in horror.
She had stood up with the ball, and was falling over backwards, down the concrete steps.
I reached out with the cat-like reflexes only a terrified parent can muster, just barely catching her by the ankle as she started to succumb to gravity. She howled in fear, but was unhurt. My husband was rightly furious with me. Indeed, my stomach churns as I write this, and I am still filled with shame over my misjudgment of how close my daughter needed me to be at that moment. I realized that I had been clouded by my past, and let the pendulum swing much too far, nearly paying for that overcompensation with my daughter’s life.
You can be assured that I quickly realized where I went wrong here, and why. I recognized the influence of my well-meaning parents, whose fear and anxiety in the face of my ever-growing independence impeded my journey to individuation. I acknowledged my tendency to give my daughter far too long a leash in some circumstances, and duly tightened it up. I apologized to my husband and daughter for my blind spots and asked for their forgiveness. I have not let her go up the stairs unsupported since.
Fast forward to a year later, where we were staying with family at a two-story beach house. My ever-adventurous daughter kept making her way over to and up the stairs, in search of her father, cousins, aunts, and uncles. When my admonitions from across the room did not avert her ascent, I dutifully dropped whatever I was doing to shadow and spot her.
One of these times, just as she made it to the top of the stairs, her older cousin surprised her with a gleeful shout from the landing. Startled, my daughter started to fall straight backwards, mirroring her near-fateful trajectory from a year earlier.
Except this time I was there to catch her.
From my spotting position just one step behind her, she only toppled a few inches, landing squarely in my outstretched arms. Startled and shocked, she cried, and as I scooped her in my arms and smoothed her curly locks, tears formed in my eyes. Feeling redeemed, I whispered in her ear,
Don’t you worry, baby. I’ve got you. You almost fell, and I caught you. Mommy and daddy are here to keep you safe.
Look, as I said earlier, finding the right balance is tricky. Sometimes only in hindsight of a massive parenting fail can we recognize when we’ve swung the pendulum too far. All we can do in the aftermath is acknowledge our blind spots, ask for forgiveness, and make a commitment to recalibrate our behavior in the future. And above all, to be kind to ourselves in the process.
As our friends Jimmy Page and Robert Plant remind us, there’s still time to change the road you’re on. Keep your child alive, notice the ever-present pull of the past, and always be vigilant on those stairs, folks.
Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.
Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!