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When Our Love Hinders Our Kids

We were at the kiddy pool, standing in less than two feet of water, when my toddler went down. Head fully submerged, I instinctually reached down myself to pull her right out. I knew she was already nervous about water and that this likely wasn’t going to help.

One of my guy friends was standing there beside us. “Don’t you think she could have pulled herself up?” He asked.

“Maybe…” I replied. “But she is already so afraid of the water.”

My instinct as a mother had been to save her from that, to rescue her before she could get any more scared.

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He gave me a knowing smirk, one this particular friend has given me on more than one occasion in the past. “I want you to listen to this week's ‘This American Life’ podcast.” He said. “I think you’ll like it.”

I knew by the look on his face that he was trying to educate me on something. But I also knew I would listen.

The episode he was referring to was titled “Batman.” It aired on January 9th and featured a blind man, Daniel Kish, who essentially taught himself to see using echolocation. He now rides bikes, climbs mountains and navigates his day-to-day life—all completely unassisted. He lives as anyone without a disability might. And he claims that is due, at least in part, to the fact that his parents never treated him like a blind kid. They never limited the expectations they had of his abilities, never allowed his lack of sight to become an excuse for why he couldn't do anything. Instead they gave him the freedom to navigate and experience his world, to fall and get hurt and get back up again.

I need to give my girl some room to fall, if only so that she can learn what she is truly capable of.

He now makes it his mission to teach other blind children to do the same, but he admits that the biggest barrier to that is often their parents. For instance, parents who are prone to swoop in and save their children, pulling them back seconds before they walk into a busy street, can indicate that they don’t believe their children are capable of making those judgments for themselves and cannot be trusted to save themselves.

Listening, I knew the message my friend was trying to send me. I need to give my girl some room to fall, if only so that she can learn what she is truly capable of.

Have I been contributing to her nervousness around water because of the way I hover nearby, always ready to rescue? We weren’t in deep water. I was standing right there. What would have happened if I had given her an extra five seconds to figure it out for herself? Would she have stood on her own? Would she have realized the water wasn’t so scary? Would she have felt stronger and more capable for having been her own savior?

I couldn’t know, as she had instead fallen into my arms crying, refusing to be set back down. Was that a consequence of her genuine fear or my reinforcement of that fear?

My girl was also a late walker, waiting until 17 months to take those first steps. It was a situation that, admittedly, stressed me out, particularly because I knew she was capable of walking; she had started with small steps at 1 but had, for some reason, regressed. So I worried. Like all good parents, I worried.

That same friend of mine, the one from the pool, was actually deployed overseas during much of this stress and worry for me. We were over visiting with his wife and son one day when he called to Skype with them. In the background, he noticed me carrying my daughter from the front hallway into the living room.

“She’s never going to learn to walk, Leah.” He said. “If you don’t start putting her down.”

Again, I realized he was right. I was a baby wearer. I liked having her against me. And I had a tendency of carrying her a lot of times when she otherwise should have been able to at least crawl, simply because it seemed easier to get from point A to point B if I had her in my arms.

At what point does that love become a hindrance?

I started making a concerted effort to put her down more often, to give her the opportunity to figure out that navigation for herself. And a few weeks later she just stood up and started walking like it was something she had known how to do all along.

I don’t think anyone would ever describe me as anything but a loving and devoted mother. My commitment to my daughter is clear to anyone who has ever spent five minutes with us. But what if love isn’t the point? And what if, sometimes, even our best of intentions are wrong?

The podcast opened with an interesting study on the expectancy effect. It showed how our expectations influence those around us, even when we aren’t aware of that influence. The takeaway message? Sometimes even just our private thoughts surrounding what we think others are capable of can affect what they actually accomplish, which might be especially true of our children, who are influenced by our actions and interactions more than anything else.

The topic has been on my mind a lot lately. In the podcast, the comment was made that you can't blame parents for being driven by love. But at what point does that love become a hindrance? And how can we quell our own desire to help, when we know deep down that our kids would sometimes benefit from saving themselves? Even more importantly, how do we decipher those times when it is safe to hang back, from the ones where every second might count?

There was something else I found interesting about the whole discussion. In the last five minutes or so, Kish admitted that he is independent to the point of spurning physical and emotional intimacy with others. He doesn’t like holding hands and doesn’t like hugs. And he explained that he has never “been one for love.” He wondered aloud if perhaps this disconnect also contributed to all that he has achieved.

The host commented, “And while he’s not suggesting that you need this quality to become independent, when he looks back, he wonders if this may have been one of the things that protected him from the debilitating effects of low expectations. Because unlike the rest of us, when those arms reached out for him, he never once had any desire to fall back into them.”

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Leaving one to wonder, is that fierce independent streak (to the point of preferring solitude) just part of who Kish always would have been? Or was it the result of such a hands-off childhood? Even Kish admits he doesn’t know the answer.

So perhaps there is room for balance. For love and freedom to be given. I suppose the question for me then becomes, how does one best strike that balance? Particularly when the overwhelming love I feel as a mother, has me always yearning to swoop in. Even when I know, deep down, that swooping isn’t always necessary.

Photograph By Leah Campbell

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