At our local mall, we have an indoor playground that’s meant for smaller children. It even has a height restriction. Not that other parents always pay attention to said height restriction *coughhackcough*. But that’s another post for another time.
This playground is made entirely of things that won’t stab your kid in the face or cause decapitation. The floor is almost bouncy and everything is made of some special material from the magical land of “no childhood injuries ever”. Really the worst thing that could happen is your toddler tumbles off the slide and bumps their head a little. It’s very safe. We’ve only taken Nellie a few times, because there are usually older kids there and they are running and being rambunctious little kids. We just didn’t feel comfortable with her toddling unsteadily about amidst the rumpus. The few times we did take her, I followed her around; hovering like one of the dreaded Helicopter Parents you read about. And up until recently, my hovering was justified.
We took her last week, and Helicopter Mama hovered about helpfully. The playground was provided by the local hospital in town, so some of the animals that the kids can climb on are in various states of ailment and recovery. There is a lion that is lying on its belly with a hot water bottle on its head. Nellie ran over to the lion and lifted herself onto one of its feet. I was right there behind her, offering to help. “Noooo!” she insisted, shaking her head and backing up off the lion. Nellie is and has always been very cautious so I figured she just wasn’t ready to climb the lion.
Josh waved me over to where he was standing and told me to stop hovering.
“I’m not hovering,” I insisted. He just looked at me. “Okay maybe I’m being a bit of a helicopter but I can’t help it. I don’t want her to get hurt.”
“Honey,” he said. “This place is pretty much like playing on a marshmallow. She’s not going to get hurt. Let her play. Let her climb, let her fall.”
Taking deep breaths, I realized my husband was right and I stood by his side, watching our girl run and squeal. Being the careful child she is, she spent most of her playtime running from one thing to the next.The few times she would put a foot up on something like she was wanting to climb, it took every ounce of self-control I had to not run over and help her. But I didn’t. It was really hard, but I didn’t do it.
A few days later we returned when it wasn’t too crowded. There were smaller children there for the most part so we felt comfortable letting her play. I stood back this time, watching my girl run and enjoy herself. I was talking to Josh and when I looked over to check on her, she was standing at the ailing lion again. As I watched, she put one foot up on his, then the other. I watched my girl crawl, scramble, and maneuver until she was sitting on the top of the lion, looking around with a smile on her face.
My girl climbed the lion. By herself. My breath caught in my throat as I witnessed this “first” for her; my safe and cautious girl had climbed something that had scared her only days before completely unassisted. She did it without my help and encouragement. My heart swelled with pride and love for my brave little girl. She sat atop the lion for a few minutes before deciding it was time to get down. She looked a little hesitant and I felt compelled to go help her but I resisted the urge and of course, my curly-headed adventurer found her own way down without my help once more. With a grin on her face, she turned back around to climb the lion again and I watched her with tears in my eyes. I turned to look at Josh, who was also smiling.
“She did it,” I said. “She did it without my help.”
My voice caught as I spoke the words, because in that moment it was more than just watching my daughter scramble up a playground lion. It was her taking another little step out of my nervous arms and toward independence. It was another moment that I realized my child is growing up and needing me less and less.
My entire body still wants to Helicopter. I want to hold her little hand and help her climb all of the lions that life throws into her path, but I know that I can’t. She has to do it on her own. I just have to tell myself that even though I have to let go, even though she has to learn for herself, that doesn’t mean that I won’t still be there to help her just in case she needs me, and to kiss away the tears when she does fall.