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.