The gasps of a dozen parents made me look up from the raft on which I’m perched, spreading peanut butter, using the side of a raft as a table. A dozen parents surrounded a rock that kids were jumping off, looking around, trying to identify the parent of the small boy who slid on the slippery rock.
There was no crying and I began to suspect that the child laying on the rock was mine. He’s tough and I used my hand as a makeshift visor, squinting to see if he was really hurt or just a little startled. When I saw him sit up, I stayed put, letting him pick himself up and assert his place in line among the bigger kids.
He looked over at me and called out, “I’m okay.”
I waved and blew him a kiss.The other parents shot me accusing looks, their kids are much older than my son, and they stood just out of reach coaching them on how to climb rocks and watching them jump.
We were rafting the Tuckaseegee River in Western North Carolina, an easy class two float. We stopped paddling to were taking a lunch and swim break.
My son was wearing a life vest and he’s been raised around rivers. I encouraged him to go off and explore, trusting his body’s ability and he feels confident venturing away from me.
But as the parents look at me, I feel the warm wash of shame creep up my neck.
The what-ifs take hold.
What if he fell and banged his head so hard that he caused brain damage?
What if I couldn’t paddle us out in time?
What if he got seriously hurt or worse?
How would I live with the guilt if anything happened to my little boy?
I begin to berate myself for being inattentive, to letting him climb on his own until I remember a lesson I learned on another river.
A few months before, I was paddling one of my favorite rivers, turquoise clear water deep flowing at the bottom of a rocky gorge with cliffs soaring hundreds above on either side, with one of my favorite paddling partners. We paddled past the harder rapids when I heard it.A thud.
I looked over my shoulder and locked eyes with two big, dark eyes. Then I saw her long narrow muzzle and large jaw. She balanced on a rock outcropping thirty feet above the river.
A mama bear.
From another direction something whined. I turned my head a quarter inch and saw a fluffy cub.
The cub reached a paw, but missed the hold and tumbled a few feet to a ledge below. The cub cried, startling me because she sounded so much like my four-year old.
The mama bear waited, shifting her weight from side-to-side, looking bored and annoyed, as if this was her problem cub, the one always lagging behind.
The cub stayed on the ledge, crying, as if waiting for the mama to come rescue her.
The mama bear refused to budge, unmoved by her cub’s frustration. Instead, the mama stretched herself tall and climbed the next rock cropping, letting her cub struggle behind her.
The cub tried again and failed again.
The mama kept her cool, waiting for the cub to negotiate the rock on her own. I watched as the cub tried and fell and the did it again until finally the cub moved a few feet to the right and found a more manageable ascent.
The mama cub stayed put until eventually her little one figured it out.
Seeing the mama, I vowed to parent less like a helicopter and more like a mama bear – fierce and protective in the face of a legitimate threat, but willing to let little ones struggle. The scary what-ifs can lead us to keep our kids too close.
Perhaps parenting is as much about what we don’t do for our kids as what we do – the times we linger back, the advice we don’t give, the tasks we don’t do – provides children with opportunities to gain the confidence that they can overcome obstacles and struggles.