“I need you to check in with me,” I said to the 9-year-old as he placed his foot on a ledge on the climbing wall. “I am what keeps you alive.”
In the boys’ endless quests for adventure, the climbing wall at the gymnastics facility was their next journey. There was fun and challenge to be had on the walls and in the attempt to swing up into a little “cave,” but the greatest fun was to descend into the pit, hook up to a harness, and scale the wall. My job was to belay them. My job was to keep them safe, to keep them alive.
This was a new adventure for me as well. I had no experience in belaying and it’s been way too long since I’ve tied any knots in Girl Scouting (“Form a guy, give him a tie, poke him in the eye.” – viola! – a figure-8 knot). I realized as a stood back, craning my neck, watching my fearless boy climb straight up that there was a great deal of learning happening in a short period of time.
Mr. Ornery was learning strategy of placement of hands and legs. With encouragement from the two men who climb each week, he was learning to focus on his legs to push him up higher. He was also learning to listen to others (even if he had just met them) who had more experience and thus could give him some guidance. If he could reflect deep enough, he was learning to respect his elders.
He was also learning to trust himself and develop confidence. The first couple times, the wall with an overhanging cliff loomed against his skill. Several attempts later, he fought to keep his toes in the footholds and extend his arms high enough to get the next rock. Scrambling over the edge, he shot to the top to ring the bell and joyously called out, “I did it.”
He was learning to trust his mother. “You sure you got me?” he’s asked several times as he reaches far up to the top. He knows he’s high enough that a fall would be devastating. He knows he’s connected to a rope, but he’s not so sure that rope is secure. He knows the rope is connected to me, but he’s not so sure this system is going to work. So, I remind him that he’s safe. I remind him that his mom has him. I remind him that he checked in with me at the start so that we’re in this together – he’s ready to explore, I’m ready to catch. Just as he used to walk off as a toddler and then circle back to check that I was still there, now as an adventurous third-grader, I’m still there. I’ve got his back in this life.
As I hold the rope, I contemplate this parent stuff. I’m responsible for keeping my kids safe, but also for encouraging them to try new things. Before clicking onto the rope, we review the knots together so that my kid thinks of safety first (helmets, seat belts, paying attention – whatever it is, safety matters). Before giving advice about the next possible step, I hang back as much as I can and let him struggle for a bit. Of course, I have an answer for him because I have a different vantage point (I’m not on the wall and I’ve already had a lot of experiences in life), but some of this he needs to wrestle with and I need to hold my tongue.
I am also reminded that part of what makes this parenting gig tough is that I don’t always have all the answers and new things (like belaying) come at me all the time. The great thing is that there are others, more experienced climbers, who can provide help – check the knots, teach me to hang the rope up at the end, provide soft encouragement. And there are more experienced parents who can give advice and share wisdom and provide soft encouragement when the going gets rough. There’s no way I could do this without them (and I’m looking for them as we approach the teen years!).
So, I’m learning to say “Go for it.” I’m learning to coach my kids just a little but hang back as much as I can so that they can figure it out. I’m learning to let others mentor and teach them skill sets that I don’t have. I’m learning to support but not hover. I’m learning to figure out what makes each boy tick and what they need on their journey. I’m learning the outward expression of the love withing.
Before you venture forth, my dear sons, check in with Mom.
And I will say, “Climb on.”