Sometimes I have thoughts rattling around my head half-formed. They are mostly wispy, inconsequential things but their hearts are strong and they contain things that need to be said, things I want to say, but can’t find the words for.
I keep bumping into them and thinking I need to explore them, flesh them out a little more. Then sometimes I stumble upon someone else’s words that say so perfectly what I have been struggling to and these thoughts solidify enough that I can release them onto you, lucky people reading my ramblings! Here they are!
1. Inspired by Rebecca Woolf on fear and “Stranger Danger“
I don’t want to raise Olive to be afraid.
I don’t want her to be afraid of public spaces, heights, men, adults, nature, water, or walking alone. I don’t believe that scaring her will make her more safe, I think scaring her will make her scared, and it is fear and the vulnerability it breeds that is most dangerous.
I am not naive to the world or the dangers it contains, but to navigate this world – which, yes, unfortunately does contain broken arms and pedophiles and drownings and sharp knives – to navigate this world, she will need confidence, and I think the best way to give her the confidence she needs to walk boldly, to feel like she can handle herself in any situation, is by preparing her for life, not by protecting her from it.
She is going to fall. She will bruise and her skin will break, she will get skinned knees and cry. Obviously, as a mother, it is my greatest wish in this world to spare her pain of any kind, but that’s simply not possible so, barring that painless utopian future I would rather she fell from a height of six inches than six feet. She won’t learn to be careful if I am constantly hovering around her catching her every time she slips, she will learn to be careful by falling and realizing the terrible, inarguable reality of gravity. She will learn from her bruised knees and as I scoop her up and wipe her tears I will point at the jungle gym and say, “Sweetpea you have to go slowly when you’re up so high. Make sure you are strong enough to hold on, and take time to look where you’re going.”
Hopefully these small lessons and small scrapes will teach her well enough that they don’t become lessons too big, and broken arms instead. I want her to test the limits of her physical ability when the stakes are small, and learn to draw the line between risk and adventure on her own. I think if I worry too much for Olive she won’t learn to worry on her own, and then who will stop her when I’m not around and she’s stark naked on the roof thinking she can fly because she hasn’t yet learned what it means to fall?
It’s not that I want to be careless with her, or that I want her to get hurt – I mean it’s tempting to wish for her to never fall or hurt or cry. But can you imagine the type of insufferable human being that child would grow up into, never having felt sorrow, frustration, anger or pain? These things are the shadow side of life and no one wants to experience them, but I believe that they are inevitable and probably necessary experiences in order to become smart and empathetic, confident and able to cope with whatever life throws at you.
Stranger danger, too. This is somewhat of a controversial (and depressing) topic, but the fact is that our children aren’t being harmed by strangers. It’s not strangers we have to fear. 90% of sexual abuse happens at the hands of a family member or friend. Similarly, in Canada out of 46, 718 children reported missing in 2011, the majority were runaways and only 25 of them were abducted by someone defined as a “stranger to the family” (a definition which, it bears noting, includes anyone who is not a parent, including family friends, teachers, counsellors etc.)
Teaching our children to be afraid of strangers is harmful and counterproductive. I want Olive to know that she needs to trust her gut, not whether or not she knows someone, to tell her if something bad is happening. And if, god forbid knock on wood please god never, if something bad does happen I want her to place more weight on her gut feeling than the fact that the person she is with is known by me, trusted by me. I want her to listen to that feeling that is telling her to get out of there and run like hell regardless of who is making her feel that way, and I want her to know that she has to find an adult and ask them for help even if they are a stranger.
Now, there is still the small matter of the 10% and the 25 kids. And this is why I will still prepare her for the possibility of abductions, or men with nefarious intentions; she will know about drowning or getting lost. I will teach her to walk on sidewalks and cross with the light, she will know not to go anywhere with someone she doesn’t know, she will know how to swim and how to get home. It’s not that I’m naive about the world, but I want Olive to have the skills to live safely in it, even when I’m not around.
This is the plan. But Olive is not even two yet. While some of this is easy to practice now (the not hovering, the watching and waiting instead of rescuing) other ideas have yet to bear the test of time to see if I can really follow through. Would I really let her walk to school by herself? Could I stand to see her climbing a tree higher than she’d ever been, cringing as she boldly places her feet and sticks her head amongst the leaves, and not say anything? Could I really not call out, “Hold on! Get down! You’re going to break your neck!”.
I mean that’s my instinct. I am, by nature, a hoverer and what-if-er and worst-case-scenario-er. I am no stranger to anxiety and fear, it takes over my head more often that I’d like to admit and I don’t want that for her. I worry. Always. So this sort of backing off doesn’t come easily, but I somehow through that instinct, beneath that primal roar I know that Olive is smart. She is capable, determined, and I want her to stay that way. I want her to be curious about the world, and I want her to know that it is, mostly, benevolent.
In my Introduction to Sociology class, the one that made me change my major, the professor discussed crime rates. He spoke about how crime rates are often bemoaned in the media, and worried over by the public. But, he explained, the interesting thing from a Sociological point of view isn’t why 10% of the population is stealing and murdering but why the other 90% isn’t.
It’s because people – most of us- are good. And when Olive was born, before she even had a name, I leaned in close to her ear and whispered “Welcome to the world, baby.” I brought her into the world and I welcomed her to it, and I want to keep doing that. I want her to know that the world is an incredible place and she is powerful, smart, and above all safe enough to live in it.
All of this preparing is of course leading up to the ultimate test, those times when I won’t be there. The times when she is walking home from school, or out with friends, or at camp. She’ll be ten or fourteen or twenty-one. And when she finds herself in a situation that’s not safe (because we know that it’s not, not always) I hope she won’t need protecting. That ten-year old or twenty-one year old Olive will be able to listen to her own gut feelings, hold onto the railing a little tighter, know that flying is just make-believe, or listen to that churning sense of wrong when she is offered a drink by someone she doesn’t know.
I hope I can be brave enough to carry this through. I hope my fear won’t spill over onto her, and I hope that I can bite back enough of my worrying that she learns to do some of her own.
Be brave, sweetpea. Please don’t fall.