Earlier today I drove my tiny baby up into the Dublin Mountains and abandoned him. At least that’s how it seemed to me. From his almost six-year-old perspective things may have appeared rather different. As far as he was concerned he headed to the wonderfully well-organised Pine Forest Art Centre in the company of his considerably older brother and cousin to spend a few blissful hours making and drawing; paddling and playing; and escaping the suffocating attentions of his overprotective mother.
I’m sure I didn’t feel this anxious four years ago when my firstborn was bundled off to his very first summer camp, facing the big, bad world armed only with a packed lunch and a hastily applied coating of sunscreen. The difference was that I was preoccupied with a toddler at the time and at five he seemed so big and capable when compared to the tiny, nappy-clad arriviste who couldn’t feed himself or form a coherent sentence.
This is largely the reason for my slight sense of unease as I sit here typing and trying to keep at bay thoughts of him tumbling into a patch of nettles or a fast flowing mountain stream (oops!). However, it’s probably not the sole source of my undoubtedly misplaced agitation. We live in a more anxious era and the consequences seep into our parenting as much as into every other aspect of life. Relentless reports of danger on our roads result in us trepidatiously strapping them into their tiny safety seats and prominently displaying “baby on board” signs as if to say “don’t hit me – hit someone who hasn’t reproduced instead”. Yet our roads are relatively safe and as youngsters we happily rattled around on the backseat and often in the boot of the 1970’s family hatchback.
We carefully vet fellow parents to ensure that their supervisory skills are up to scratch before releasing our darlings into their care during a tightly scheduled play date, alerting them to allergies and other potential sources of upset as we linger on their lawn. Yet we lived in and out of each other’s houses. We wait beneath the climbing frame in the local park, arms outstretched, ready to act as a human crash mat should they tumble towards us. Yet we ran wild in the local park, climbing and falling with abandon and we never came to any harm. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.
They seem so fragile and tiny when they arrive. It’s utterly understandable for us to feel fiercely protective, determined to shield them from all conceivable harm. But how long can we keep this up? Are we loosening the strings sufficiently to allow them to make their own way in the world? The little hand that nestles in yours will soon be pulled away in embarrassment as you approach the school gates. Before long it’ll be holding the hand of someone else. The tiny boy who couldn’t find his feet will shortly be stomping through the park, sporting livid bruises, cuts and grazes, the battle scars of a hundred rough-and-tumble, fun-filled summer days.
The danger is that us helicopter parents who continuously run interference between our children and the real world can do more harm than good. Children are not necessarily good at assessing the risks but they have to be allowed to find the boundaries and with them their own burgeoning confidence and self-esteem. They sense our hesitancy and may interpret it as meaning “I don’t trust you. You’re not capable of doing the everyday things your friends can do”. They too may begin to detect dangers lurking in every new experience. It’s important to protect them but it’s essential to let go too. I hope my tiny lad enjoys his Pine Forest experience and I’ll try to put all thoughts of bullies and bees, stinging nettles and sharp knives, sun burn and sadness out of my mind. I’m sure they haven’t even entered his.