The wife and I both work from home. Jackson gets home from school at 1. He runs over to the couch while I get him a snack and head back up to work in my office. Christine is doing her own thing. He watches cartoons or plays with his trucks and airplanes. He likes jumping back and forth between the coffee table and the couch. Some days he naps. Some days not so much. I leave my door open just in case. It’s not unusual to hear cries of, “I stinky!” wafting up from below. One day I heard him yelling, “Help! Help!” and went downstairs to find him squatting on the console under the living room window. He’s made bigger jumps before; he was just being cautious. Also, he was stinky. Once he potty trains and learns how to open his own peanut butter crackers and applesauce, I won’t really be needed anymore.
Maybe it’s second-kid problems. Or more like second-kid benefits. With our first, it was rare to be out of the sight, having spent so much holding and rocking and playing and photographing. We slept with the baby monitor beside our bed and kept constant vigilance during naps. I admit it’s cute to watch them sleep and play, but when is it okay to pull back a little? Never? Then you have a second child and discover you can’t be two places at once. With Jackson we never got around to plugging in the monitor. This is a kid who had immune deficiencies and was sick all the time. He had severe reflux and threw up half of what he ate. He drooled through a dozen bibs a day. I spent a lot of time supervising him in the middle of the night.
Despite that, he isn’t weak. His troubles didn’t teach me how little he could do; they taught me how little I could do. I could hold him, but I couldn’t stop him from crying. I could give him medicine, but I couldn’t stop him from getting sick. I could feed him, but I couldn’t stop him from throwing up. We tried everything we could, and much of it was necessary, but then we had to let him cry, let him fall asleep, let him grow and heal on his own.
He’s older and healthier now, but the same lesson applies. I can’t keep him from falling; I can only try to stop him from running. I can’t keep him from bumping his head; I can only try to keep from climbing on anything. I can’t keep him from making a mess; I can only try to keep him from playing with any toys. But I don’t want to. I’ll take the falls if it means he learns how to run and the bumps if he can learn to climb and the mess if he learns how to play. I want him to cry so that he knows what it means to be sad and what it means to move on. He needs those little lessons to grow. I need them too. Whether I’m in the room or not, I can’t prevent anything bad from ever happening. He can cry even when he’s in my arms. He can fall even when he’s holding my hand. I can watch him jump, but I can’t always be there to catch him.
It’s still hard. I often feel the tug when I hear him playing down there. I fear not only the threat to his safety but also to my quality as a parent. What if he gets hurt when I’m not there to help him? What will people think of me? Wouldn’t a good parent be playing with him anyway? I don’t want people questioning whether he watches too many cartoons. What’s driving my parenting often isn’t Jackson’s actual needs but my own anxiety and insecurity as a parent. When I’m forced to take a step back, this becomes obvious. He can play on his own, watch on his own, get up on his own, calm down, brush himself off, and stop crying. Those are necessary skills to learn, because I won’t always be there. I still enjoy playing with him or snuggling on the couch, but if I have to work or cook dinner for a little while, he’ll be just fine. I’m probably doing him a favor.
You may have heard of the Free Range Kids movement. I like the idea of it, as long as it’s paired with plenty of quality time as well. Without a doubt, Virginia, who’s 5, could make the 10-minute walk or ride down to her grandparents’ house on her own. I’m pretty sure Jackson could, too, though it would probably take him closer to 20. In our neighborhood, I’d worry far more about some well-intentioned neighbor picking them up and calling the police than anyone trying to hurt them. But for most people, including me, this is asking more than we can bear. There are other, smaller ways to teach our kids independence. I just want to trust my children a little more every day and treat them like the little humans they are. They are capable, if we let them, of making their own decisions, solving their own problems, dealing with their own consequences, finding their own entertainment, and even (though it seems impossible) getting their own snacks. A little free time is as good for them as it is for us. But I’ll still be there to come running when they call. Especially when it’s a stinky.