In Golden Gate Park, the oldest public playground in the US, there is a tall climbing structure, almost 30 feet high. On summer afternoon, Maya decided to climb it. P.S: This entry is a shameless plug by a parent about the exploits of his daughter.
Ever since she could walk, Maya was in thrall with climbing. She seemed fairly fearless and also quite intuitive in balancing. She started crawling up the stairs when she was eleven months old. She seemed so adept and balanced, we didn’t worry about putting a gate at the bottom of the stairs, only at the top, to prevent an accidental fall as she careened around the room.
When she was about 17 months old, we went to spend a weekend in the city, San Francisco. We rented a place in what seemed a place close to nice restaurants and parks. What we didn’t realize was that we had a long flight of steps (almost 30 or so) to reach the flat (it was the top floor of a house). The stairway to the apartment was a little to the side, but almost in the middle of the room. We were terrified that we now couldn’t leave her alone for even a minute, that she wasn’t safe with such a long, winding staircase with no way to block access to it.
But we had nothing to worry about. Maya was so adroit that soon we let her make a game out of climbing up and down that inside staircase.
At playgrounds, she unfailingly chose climbing structures, even some quite difficult ones. She seemed fearless. My heart was in my mouth constantly, looking at the structures she wanted to climb. But not wanting to impose my fears on her, especially when she seemed so safe, I let her climb whatever caught her eye.
As she started speaking, she began to demand that we take her climbing some of the mountains that ring Silicon Valley. Telling her that we’d take her hiking up a mountain was sufficient to get her into the car in a hurry. In Banff (in Canada), she went up some steep slopes that had some kids older than her in tears.
She was very clear what she wanted to climb and which ones she was willing to give a pass. It was not that she didn’t get out of her comfort zone. There were a few occasions when she found herself in a difficult spot and started wailing, asking to be rescued. But, to her credit, that didn’t stop her from trying the same climb a few days later or at times, even a few minutes later. She kept at it till she finally finished the climb. She was far more adept at climbing than descending. If the descent involved her looking down as she climbed down, she refused to. At some point, when she was almost three, she started being afraid of some of the harder climbs. Descent was what scared her. If she couldn’t get a firm foothold, she would panic. At no point did this come to the fore as it did when we visited Oahu last year, when she was three months short of three years.
To her credit, she worked on conquering her fear. Her persistence was quite delightful to watch. On one occasion, she got so scared during a fairly trivial climb but that had gaps in the floor that allowed her to look down on the floor far below, she started wailing loudly. Like her father, she has a loud voice, and everyone in the park knew that she was in distress. I went up and rescued her. What did she do next ? Immediately started climbing back up again. Some of the parents asked me if that was wise. But this time, she finished the climb and the descent smoothly. Everyone in the park started applauding and patting my back. But, the glory was all hers.
Maya has always been a tall girl. People frequently mistake her for someone a couple of years older than she is. Her height no doubt gives her an edge in reaching and maneuvering. She also seems quite visual in her learning. In any place, she spends an inordinate amount of time watching older kids and adults doing something that she’s interested in. That is how she figured out how to boogie board by herself in Hawaii. This maybe how she’s learning to climb as well.
The climbing structure in Golden Gate Park, in the Koret Children’s Quarter, is quite tall. Climbing it involves sections that Maya has to tackle laterally and in other novel ways, ways that I’ve not taught her. She had tried climbing it a few times, but had not attempted to go to the top. You cannot push her to do something that she’s not comfortable with. She’ll quit right away and not bother to do even the simplest thing. That summer day, she seemed ready and went up the structure almost effortlessly. There were times her technique left my heart pounding, but at no time did she seem uneasy or insecure in what she was doing. I was too scared to shoot the video of her climbing. A little over a decade ago, a little girl fell to her death on Golden Gate bridge, slipping through a gap in the pavement. Her father was videotaping her as she ran towards him and he videotaped her fall. I’ve been superstitious about recording her climbs. Shanthala recorded this video of her descent as I kept an eye on Maya.
A part of me is already afraid that I’ve tempted fate by writing about her exploits. As a parent, how do I ensure I don’t impose my fears on her ? Many parents I know impose restrictions on their kids based on their comfort factor. At what point are those restrictions going to stifle a child’s exuberant approach to life ? I won’t let Maya even debate about wearing a helmet while biking or riding a scooter, being in a car seat, crossing a street without our presence next to her and so on. To me, those seem just too straightforward and easy to practice and don’t really curtail her freedom. If Maya gets too close to the edge of a precipitous drop, I’ll rush to her and force her to hold my hand. If anything has a good chance of maiming her permanently or killing her, I won’t let her do it. But there’s no certainty in life. What seems safe might be what marks the end.
Parenting is a continuous act of loss of control, one parent said to me. When they’re in the womb, they’re almost completely under our control. From the very moment they’re out, they start to ascertain the primacy of their point of view. We, as parents, have to learn how to relinquish control all the time, allowing them to walk, to run and eventually fly away. Doing it in a responsible way when it comes to what we allow them to do is so much an art, an answer that is different because each parent is different and each child is unique. Parenting is successful, it seems to me, when what we do is most efficient in helping them attain lift off. Nothing is perfect or forever, but watching her climb and allowing her to, I hope that that the three of us (Maya and Shanthala and I) are learning how to teach responsibility and trust without either smothering or disengaging.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. – Kahlil Gibran
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