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From Toddler to Teenager

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Parenting experts tell us that if we want to raise independent kids we must let them walk on their own, fall down and even skin their knees; they will learn resilience from their failures.  At the same time, they must feel safe and protected in order to exercise their new found independence and interact with the larger world. Providing this environment for children requires parents to maintain carefully their own balance.

As a new, inexperienced parent, I hungrily read parenting books and often relied upon the advice of their authors. I remember the moment that I discovered Penelope Leach, a British psychologist and expert in child development.  Her sensible advice fit perfectly with my emerging approach to parenthood and I found her book, Your Baby & Child, an invaluable manual. Her description of how toddlers develop their “personal distance limits” as they learn to walk was especially helpful to me as my daughter and I visited the local playground daily: “If you do fix yourself, perhaps on a park bench, the toddler will at once go away from you. He will toddle off in a straight line in any direction. He will not go further away than about 200 feet. There is no need for you to get up and follow him.  He knows exactly where you are.” (p. 342)

Toddlers, according to Leach, have a built-in homing device and will return to their parents periodically while they explore the playground.  Just don’t move to another bench, she firmly advised.  My only problem was that Leach had never met my toddler, whose homing device had apparently broken at some point in her first year of life.  My toddler would take off through the monkey bars and swings, heading for the sandbox without a backward glance. I would sit on the bench, resisting the urge to give chase as panic paralyzed me.

Fast-forward more than a decade: My baby is taking steps away from me again, accompanying another mother’s daughters to the movies.  As they exit my car, I hear her say quite clearly, “Girls, you need to stay very close to me. The theater is crowded today and I don’t want to lose you.”  I look up as she reaches for their hands and they swiftly cross the parking lot.  They enter the theater and I am paralyzed, not by panic but by memory.  In my mind’s eye, I see her toddler arms akimbo as she tears across the blacktop toward the sandbox at the edge of the playground.  I find that I cannot raise my own arm to shift the car into gear.

My phone pings twice.  I exhale and smile at the homing device on the passenger seat. My teenager has sent me a text to reassure me. The explicit message is that they were able to get tickets for the show. The implicit message is something else entirely:  You raised an independent kid who feels safe and is confident when exploring her environment, and is also strongly connected to a caring-but-not-overprotective parent.

I spend another moment relishing her backward glance as she ventures out into the world.

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“Ready in 2 Minutes!”

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How many times have I tossed this reassurance to my kids before rushing out the door for another day in the world?  It is usually my son who calls me to task: “Your 2 minutes, or a real 2 minutes?!” His question is not unreasonable; sometimes “my 2 minutes” lasts longer than 120 seconds. What is it that I wish to accomplish in those last 2 minutes? And why do I feel the need to give a 2-minute warning about my readiness to leave?

A lot can happen in 2 minutes.  This morning at 5:58 a.m. EDT, the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed safely on Earth.  Just 2 minutes later, my clock radio began broadcasting the news.  Catching the NPR reporter mid-sentence, my brain slowly began to process my unexpected feelings of loss.

I had not intended to watch the landing on television.  Since 1986, I have had no desire to witness a shuttle take-off or landing.  I remember every detail of the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. I was studying quietly in a corner when a librarian’s voice on the public address system sliced open the enveloping silence of the Bryn Mawr College library.  I also remember exactly where I was and how I felt when I learned, seventeen years later, about the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia.  Last night I went to sleep with a vague sense of discomfort, an unfocused anxiety about the much-anticipated event of this morning.

In the 2 minutes before I awoke today, my subconscious self remembered the last 25 years.  In the 2 minutes I spent watching the ABC News video clip of the Atlantis landing, my fully-conscious self remembered 14 people who did not live to experience these 2 minutes today.  I will try to revisit those 2 minutes of tribute throughout my day, perhaps spending even more than 120 seconds honoring the memory of the astronauts whose lives ended before NASA’s Space Shuttle program was relegated to its place in history.

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Fire Sparks a Memory

Sitting at my desk, reading eyewitness accounts of the fire at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City, I begin to sweat.  In an instant I find myself next door, watching from my neighbor’s front lawn as the firefighters bring the blaze under control.

More than ten years have passed, but I can still hear the sound of an explosion followed by the siren call of fire engines racing down the street.  I can still feel the intense heat of the flames as they consume the roof and burst toward my kitchen window.  It was a “fast burn” fire, yet it seemed to last hours. Later in the day I would learn that the fire department had arrived within four minutes of the alarm and quickly reduced the inferno to smoke and rubble.

Residents from up and down the street huddled together in the early morning twilight—the coolest hour of the day in Atlanta—seeking respite from the strange heat that filled the yard.  We were alone with our thoughts: Had the strong winds not died down overnight the destruction could easily have spread to our own homes…had a fireman not physically prevented Dan from going back inside to retrieve his glasses and wallet from his bedside table… I remember feeling helplessly beaten by nature and shamelessly grateful to have been spared.

Not one of Dan’s possessions was salvaged from the house after the fire.  But he took stock of what had been saved and decided to renew his lease on life.  While his house was being rebuilt, he sought medical attention for chronic ailments that had prevented him from living fully before the fire.  When he moved back into the neighborhood, he made an effort to visit with the neighbors and to spend more time socializing with life long friends. After the fire, he learned to live with loss because he had gained a new perspective on life.  The fire ignited awareness in our community of life’s fragility, and in the wake of its destruction we attempted to help each other more and to live better.

My prayers are with the people of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. While they rebuild their home I hope that they will also strengthen their community.

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