I Had to Let Him Do It Alone: When Letting Go of Your Toddler is Downright Scary

When letting go of your toddler is downright scary: this mom talks about how she realized she had to let go and let him figure it out himself!

My son has always been naturally skiddish. Or… so I thought. It took us months for him to have the confidence to go down the spiral slide at the park near us, and once he did, it seemed like it took ages before he was ready to do it again. He wasn’t a fan of anything high up, and he certainly didn’t like anything spinning. I tried to be right there, putting a guiding hand on him and holding his hand whenever he felt a little bit nervous. If he went to high, I’d give him a gentle reminder, saying “Be Careful!” to the point that anytime he’d get someplace even remotely high off the ground, he’d look at me and say “Be careful!” to make sure I knew he was doing something dangerous and I should be there watching. And by dangerous, I meant sliding down the slide barely 2 lengths of his body in our basement… not a scary drop at all.

I thought that maybe it was okay for him to stay close to the ground, that maybe it’d keep him safe. After my brother broke his collarbone last winter, I knew that it was practically best to wrap my son in bubblewrap to prevent similar injuries. So, time and time again, I stayed right there keeping careful watch on every slide, climbing apparatus, and swingset. I was being a good mom, right? Keeping watch over my son is a good thing.

Until one day, Zach helped me realize maybe I wasn’t doing things right after all.

It started first at our local park, as Zach climbed the steps to the spiral slide. I offered my hand, and he backed down the steps again, scared of the slide’s height. He just couldn’t do it, and that was okay. But then he had a second thought, and he looked at me and said “Back! Back!” I stood back, away from the scary slide. I assumed that he asked me to give him space so he could finish his descent down the steps, but what he did shocked me. He put on a brave face, climbed to the top, and slid down the giant spiral slide. He then climbed again, said “Back, mom!” and slid down again.

Again and again he slid, and again and again he reminded me to stand back, not offering my hand. It was as though my fear that he might fall added fear to him, made him believe that if I thought he’d fall, maybe he would fall, and it wasn’t safe after all. By asking me to step back, to give him space, he was able to explore and see that the slide was safe, and that he wasn’t going to fall. My hand, instead of helping him feel safe, made him worry that I was only offering it out of assurance he wasn’t big enough to go it alone.

We left the park that day both feeling a sense of pride, relief, and elation that he had conquered the slide, the highest point in the park.

Soon after that day, we went to a park play date at a new (to us) park with some of Zach’s friends from his music and movement class. Zach reminded me only once that day, “Back, mom.” I nervously sat and chatted with the other moms. Until Zach’s class, he mostly kept to himself. New people made him nervous, the same way new experiences did. I was afraid this might not be something he was okay with, but we marched onward. The park we were at featured three playgrounds in close proximity, or at least, close enough that I could see him on each playground if I stood in the middle, but far enough away that I’d never be able to catch him if he lost his footing.

The very first thing Zach did, while I stood my distance chatting with the other moms, was climb up the tallest, steepest incline to get to the top of the playground. Because of course, why wouldn’t he? He had no fear. From there, he ran back and forth between the playgrounds as I worried. What if someone grabbed him? What if he fell? What if I wasn’t close enough to him? My mind was set at ease as the moms set up station at each playground, and I knew that even if I wasn’t close enough to catch him, someone would be there keeping watch until I got to him if he fell. But I still saw him racing up play equipment and talking to the other kids with no fear, no nervousness, no catch in his voice.

This park had one interesting feature, a large pair of climbing rocks about 5 feet tall and 6 feet tall, respectively. They had webbing between them, allowing the kids to climb to the top and back down again, as well as handholds on the sides so kids could climb up the side normally. At one point, Zach stood tall on the 5 foot rock. The other kids were smattered along the webbing, and I knew that Zach was looking ready to get down. I started to approach, to see if he needed help. But I went slowly… in my head, all I could hear was “Back, mom, Back!” I knew that he was capable, I did, but my mom instinct told me that the only way we were leaving this park was in the back of an ambulance, and that I better make sure we have everything we need to go straight to the hospital from the park.

And then, as my heart raced, as kids climbed, as my son stood on that rock, time froze.

And he jumped.

(No, this isn’t when he jumped… he jumped much earlier, when there were kids all over the webs).

Yeah, he jumped, right off the top of that 5 foot rock, as my heart pounded. And the worst part? He jumped off to the side where I couldn’t see him. And then he rolled to the side, I caught a glimpse as he dusted his pants off, stood up, and ran to the next playground.

He was fine. We made it home from the park without even so much as a scrape or bump.

It’s true… my own fears, fears he’d fall or not fit in or that we’d go straight to the hospital from the park had kept my son from facing his fears and playing with the other kids. I never wanted to be a helicopter parent, hovering over my son’s every move, making sure he’d be safe, bubble wrapping him like I found myself doing emotionally. My fears were a box, one he couldn’t escape, because he felt my anxiety and didn’t do things because he knew I didn’t feel safe, not because he didn’t feel safe.

While of course I don’t want him jumping off of any more 5 foot rocks, I also recognize that he is probably pretty safe if he goes down the spiral slide while I sit on the bench and read a book, glancing to keep an eye out, but certainly not having my hand out constantly to keep him safe.

It’s hard, coming up on his third birthday, knowing that it’s time to let him go, at least a little bit… It’s hard recognizing that the best thing to do to help him feel safe and secure is to stop pushing my own fears and insecurities on him.

So from now on, feel free to think I’m not being a good mom because I’m sitting on the bench reading a book. I’ll be silently realizing that the best way to be a good mom to my son is to let him find his way. Will we end up in the ER? Yeah, I’m sure we will once or twice. I can almost guarantee there will be a bump or bruise or broken bone somewhere down the line. But I also know that my son is a brave little dude, and that we’re both going to be just fine… no bubble wrap necessary.

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9 comments

  1. Zach is getting to be such a big boy! Even when he’s in grade school, you’ll still have a hard time letting go. I think it’s our right as their mom to be protective of them, even when it’s unreasonable.

    We had a picnic at the park this weekend, and when I saw my 9 year old hanging upside down in a tree, I thought my heart would come out of my chest! Everyone laughed at me and said he’s fine. Yeah, I know, but what if…. I had visions of broken arms, legs, concussions, ER going through my head. Nevertheless, we escaped the park, free of any major incident. 🙂

    1. Jill, I’m glad you’re letting me know that it won’t get any easier! But at the same time, it’s also good to know that I’m not alone in wanting to bubble wrap my baby, even if it isn’t always what’s best for him. 🙂

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