Since I was a young child, I have been afraid of stars. My fear of them falling on me has stopped me from looking up into the night sky. It is, I concede, a rather ridiculous fear, but biologically it is normal for humans to have some fears. They keep us safe.
Admittedly, since becoming a mother, my list of fears and anxieties has extended past the night sky. I am scared of many things now, from pedophiles to lice. In fact, if I am truly honest, I sometimes wonder if I have become a bit of a worry-wart. There seem to be so many dangers out there for our children that I frequently fight the urge to send them out into the world with mouth-guards, helmets, face masks and full body shields now, too, to protect them from it all.
I may not force them to wear full body armor—I am still somewhat rational—but I can admit that I am one of those parents that can’t stop herself from repeating dire warnings to my children every time they leave the house. Comments like “look both ways when crossing the street,” accompanied by the right-left-right head movement for added emphasis. Or “don’t talk to strangers!” These are much like the “be careful!” warnings called out almost obsessively by most adults when they see a child high up on monkey bars or the “have fun…but not too much fun!” from parents of teenagers.
I am increasingly aware, however, that these types of comments only assuage our fears; they are more based in superstition than usefulness. Do they really protect our children from all the real or perceived dangers out there?
One of my daughters has been badly injured twice. The first time, her finger got caught in a conveyor belt at the grocery store and amputated. Her finger is back in its rightful place, thanks to modern medicine, but I still think about it. When my daughter was in a full cast from shoulder to tip of finger, a stranger asked us what had happened and, upon hearing my daughter’s story, haughtily exclaimed that she never let her children touch the conveyor belt. That comment sent me into a guilt-ridden tizzy. If I had said to my daughter “don’t touch” or “danger, danger, danger!” more vehemently every time we got near a cash register, would this accident have been avoided? Would this four-year-old, full of curiosity and wonder, have remembered these warnings when she saw a deliciously tempting hole in the belt and placed her finger in it to see what was inside? The answer is obvious since she did not heed to or remember my numerous warnings. Which brings up the uselessness of my somewhat obsessive desire to warn my children constantly about all the dangers around them.
In the same way I questioned my ability to prevent the awful grocery store episode, I wondered if the trampoline incident that happened a few years later was my fault. Again, my lovely, curious and adventurous daughter found delicious joy in attempting to defy gravity on a trampoline, despite my repeated pleas for her to be careful. Unfortunately she landed at the wrong angle, breaking bones in her leg. A couple nights in the hospital, surgery to make everything right again, a cast that went from hip to toes and many weeks in a wheelchair later, my courageous daughter healed and moved on with life. I, once again, grappled with guilt and the desire to protect her even more from the world. I cursed myself for ever letting her on a trampoline, let alone letting her jump on one, and seriously contemplated getting rid of ours.
A few months later, my daughter was back on the trampoline. It was hard for me. I fought the urge to tell her to be careful. Don’t jump too high, keep your knees bent, don’t flop down, be careful, just stop and get off please!! I didn’t say a thing. I was learning that constantly warning children of possible dangers doesn’t always prevent bad things from happening. It just makes them anxious, hyper focused on what can go wrong rather than what is right. Like I was doing.
I watched quietly as my daughter bounced on that trampoline for the first time since the accident. She did not need my warnings or words of advice. The experience had taught her more than I ever could. She jumped more cautiously than before, but she still had the biggest smile. She still had that joyful feeling of flying through the air. In staying quiet, I allowed her to make decisions based on her abilities and experience, not my fears. It also gave me the chance to enjoy the moment rather than focus on all the potential dangers.
My daughter’s accident showed me that I have to let go of the idea that I can control everything. I can’t. Unfortunately, sometimes our worst fears will materialize even if we tell our loved ones to wear helmets or buckle their seatbelts at every opportunity. Although scary, this thought is also liberating. Fear may be genetically encoded in us to ensure our survival, but too much of it prevents us from experiencing life’s joys. Like all things, there has to be a balance. We must counter that overwhelming urge to protect our children with the knowledge that they won’t truly live if we shield them from everything. I don’t want my daughters to let fear, more precisely my fears, dictate what they do or don’t do. They can figure it out on their own. I need to trust their instincts and only occasionally allow myself to say “be careful!” I need to start looking at the stars, too.