When my son was two-and-a-half, my wife found a beat-up, big wheel trike sitting curbside by a neighbor’s trash can. She brought it home, washed it off, and Felix fell in love. Every morning he used to wave bye-bye as my wife biked off to work. Now, he could be just like her, pedaling himself up and down and around the block!
Though cautious in other areas — afraid of slides, nervous about heights, uninterested in swings — Felix became a tot-sized Evel Knievel. He learned the limits of his vehicle, riding at you with legs pumping full speed and then stopping on a dime right at your toes. He loved to slam on the breaks and skid, sometimes spinning a 180 and eventually wearing through the front wheel of one trike.
On an almost weekly basis, Felix would scare the bejesus out of one of our neighbors who’d see him careening toward her corner house and think he was going to keep riding, right into the street. She wouldn’t run to stop him or do anything that might have actually helped in a practical way. Rather, she’d stand there screaming “Oh, God!” while looking over at me or my wife with horror.
We’d smile back, calm and bemused. Because over the course of several weeks of training, the boy knew how to ride his trike safely and we had learned to trust him. Felix has a healthy fear of the Brooklyn streets. To this day he’s never once tried crossing the street alone, even when the white walking man on the street sign indicated it was safe to go. He has always known to wait for an adult to accompany him off the curb.
Felix has been riding various trikes for about two years now, and while he’s occasionally pushed his vehicles too far — turning so tight in a zig-zag that he tips over, say — he’s never had a major accident or violated basic safety rules. He seems to have internalized these regulations, freeing my wife and me up from having to hover over him every minute he’s riding. (I should also note that he’s never worn a helmet, though he does wear one when he rides his bicycle, mostly because my wife and I never wore helmets when triking back in the day.)
I trust my son in other situations too. He’s my shopping partner at our local food cooperative, disappearing down aisles to fetch something while I bag apples or fill a pouch with coffee beans. When he assists in cooking, he uses serrated butter knives and sometimes, with our supervision, a paring knife. He builds with LEGOS that clearly say “For ages 5 and up.”
This is just our way. My wife and I have never researched the safety standards of any toy. Nor did we cover our electrical outlets, or secure our bookshelves to the wall, or lock our cabinets or pantry doors, though we did move the cleaning supplies out of reach. People sometimes ask us about childproofing, but you can’t childproof the world. We have never wanted Felix to see the Earth as a scary place, full of potential dangers.
Living life fully means taking risks, emotionally and physically, too. Being careful is important, but so is moving with confidence. I would never have known that I was a horrible skier — seriously, one of the worst skiers in the world — if I hadn’t spent an awful day on the slopes, banging myself black and blue from fall after fall, gripping the poles so tight that I bruised the palms of my hands. Nor would I know what a great swimmer I am, or experienced the deep pleasure of floating on my back in a lake, if I hadn’t gotten over my fear of going underwater. You live and you learn.
Of course, Felix’s personality plays a huge part in our approach. My son has never been reckless or accident prone. He’s cautious and careful with his body. He never tried crawling up our stairs, and even when he could walk unassisted he still demanded an adult’s fingers — often, my wife and I must coach or encourage him out of his physical comfort zone.
This isn’t the case with every little one. I’m sure we all know those kids who, no matter how many times they’ve tumbled, still fly down the stairs pellmell. When choosing the level of protection to provide your child, you have to consider the child’s temperament first and foremost. But sometimes you don’t know what to expect until you come across an opportunity to learn more about your child. I’d rather my son make a mistake and then learn from his actions than be prevented from learning and growing by my swooping in on the scene too soon, coming on too strong.
Parents also have to consider the environment. In familiar spaces like the local playground, the food coop, or on our block, I know Felix is relatively safe. When taking a trip to Times Square, say, or in a large, unfamiliar department store, I keep a closer eye on the boy. Still, while I may direct him to stay close or slow down, I monitor my tone. I don’t want to communicate, “you’re in a strange place and so should be scared,” instead, I ask him to stay alert, which, as any New Yorker knows, is a good rule of thumb for city living. Figuring out how the limits of your child’s freedom — when you’ll let her fly with little supervision, and when you’ll stay tight on her — is an important part of good parenting. Different situations call for different amounts of caution, and if we don’t model that behavior ourselves then our children won’t fully develop that sense themselves.
Often parents talk about how they want their kids to trust them. This goes both ways. We have to trust our kids too. Trust them enough not to hover over their every move. Trust that they’ll fall, and need a hug or maybe even a bandaid, and then get back to playing. Trust that they will indeed get hurt, but that’s ok. We all trip and stumble, make mis-steps, and sometimes move too fast. It’s a part of life.