It’s a sunny afternoon in early July, and I’m lying on my back in the tall grass of a neighbourhood park while my 10-year-old daughter climbs a tree. I’m starting to drift off when I hear her calling me, asking me to look up. I know that she wants me to try and find her hidden amongst the pine needles. I open my eyes and start scanning the branches.
I can’t see any sign of her. Then, a movement up near the very topmost branches catches my eye, and my heart skips a couple of beats. She’s perched up there, maybe 70 feet or a little more above the ground. From this distance It’s difficult to be sure, but it seems like she has a grin as wide as the Cheshire cat’s. Then I hear her laughing at my drop-jawed surprise.
Every parental instinct I have is screaming inside of me to yell at her at the top of my lungs. I don’t, partly because the last thing I want to do is spook her right now. But there’s also another reason. The other reason is that I happen to know she is as agile as a squirrel when She’s climbing. And because I consider it a sacred part of my duty as a mother to stop myself from letting my fears become hers.
It is so common to go through life filled with fear. Most of us are afraid of so many things: heights, public speaking, being in a relationship, not being in a relationship, death, life. I know people who would never dream of swimming in the ocean, for fear of sharks and other lurking aquatic life, or because they are concerned about contracting some terrible disease from the “filthy” water. I know others who have never been camping because they are afraid of dirt, spiders, and grizzly bears. The funny thing is, these same people would think nothing of strapping themselves and their children into cars and hurtling along city streets and highways. I have never known a single person who has been seriously injured whilst swimming in the sea or sleeping in the woods, but every day there are grim reports of automobile fatalities.
Perhaps the problem is not the fact that we are filled with fear, but that we are afraid of the most ridiculous things. We run screaming from a mouse, but think nothing of the deadly chemicals hidden away in our hot dogs and fireproofed wall-to-wall carpeting.
Overall, though, I don’t think fear is a very useful adaptive reaction to any sort of danger. It tends to cloud our perceptions, dull our creativity, and rob us of the initiative to protect ourselves. Again and again, we warn our children to be careful on the swings, to never talk to strangers, and to stay right where we can see them. All we succeed in doing is ramping up their anxiety levels, and stealing away their ability to evaluate situations on their own merits.
It is for these reasons that, when my daughter Jessie climbs quickly and easily from the tree and runs across the grass to me, I let my heart rate return to normal and remind myself that a big part of loving your children is learning how to have faith in them, how to sit back and watch them take flight without constantly reminding them of the hardness of the ground beneath them.