Letting kids fall

We have two swings next to each other in our front yard. One is more-or-less Amelia’s height, one is more for Viv and Sonya. The other day, Amelia got up onto the higher one, swung her heart out, attempted a dismount, and dropped, hard, flat onto her back.

Her sobs were familiar to me: pain (perhaps more emotional than physical), shock, anger at the unfairness of it all. I comforted her as best I could, and when the crisis passed, felt gratitude for the fall.

A month or so ago, Sonya fell at a gymnastics meet. She leapt from the lower uneven bar to the higher one, a jump she has done a thousand times, reached for the bar, and missed. I burst into involuntary tears as I watched her belly flop from a height of 9 feet.

Once upon a time I fell off an 8-foot ladder and went to the emergency room and somebody told me that 50% of people who fall off a ladder that high die (I just tried to find some evidence of that; I just found this presentation that cites it as 11 feet. I’m not sure if it’s true, as other sources say 48 feet from a building, and who knows how a building differs from a ladder, except that one’s a building and one’s a ladder. Regardless, that was what was going through my head as I watched her drop).

I watched Sonya fall and instinctively went over the statistics in my mind. Nine feet. Straight onto her belly. And not from a stationary position: she had launched herself forward with all the strength of a 9-year-old gymnast. Lest you forget, 16-year-old gymnasts are world class athletes. This was no joke. I watched her fall and thought “this is how she dies.”

She stood up, shook herself up, got back in line and did her routine again. I shook and cried in the stands.

When I talked to the coach later, I said, “What if she had instinctively moved into a dive position, like she was heading into a pool? She would have broken her neck.”

The coach agreed that it was serious, and then said something that I Know To Be True: she wasn’t going to do that, because she knows how to fall.

Sonya falls every day. She fell when she was learning back handsprings, when she was figuring out how to do a cartwheel on the beam, which looks like it is 4 inches across but I swear on all things holy it’s only a few centimeters. She falls when she is trying new tricks on our trampoline and when she jumps off the swing. She has almost a decade of experience falling.

I’ve read that kids that take more risks don’t get hurt more, because they learn, when they fall off that slightly-too-high swing, that falling sucks and you have to understand your own limits, then take one tiny step beyond those limits to stretch them. They know, when they have climbed to the top of the tree, which branches won’t hold their weight because they learned it the hard way when they were three feet up. They fall so much that they know how to protect their own bodies on the way down.

I try to refrain from telling my kids to be careful. Not because I don’t want them to be careful, but because I want them to know that I trust them to know their own bodies, their own capacities, their own abilities to protect themselves if things go sideways.

I give my kids an allowance, which, like everything with parenting, seems 100% right and 100% wrong. In theory, they will grow up making all sorts of foolish choices, spending their money on LOL Surprise Dolls and ignoring me when I say “but what about a Roth IRA?” In theory, they will make seemingly massive mistakes with their dozens of dollars, so when they are 40 and considering a brand-new flashy car they will remember that stuff is only really exciting for a minute and a half, and then that stupid LOL Surprise Doll loses its impossibly small shoes and the dog chews its face off. In theory, the more I let them screw up, the more they will be prepared for being financially responsible adults.

As Amelia sobbed in my arms after falling onto her back, I was grateful. Grateful for the fall, for the lessons that seem so hard but are so relatively minor. I’ll have to try to remind myself to hold my tongue the next time somebody says “I want to spend $40 on [insert nonsense here].” I have to remember to let them fall.

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