Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Letting kids fall

This post is an apology to my husband, StraightMan. The man who took our then just-able-to-walk toddler to the top of a rather steep slide at the elementary school that I had attended in northern NJ, and released her with the words: "Let's just see what happens."

Her eyes widened as her body gathered momentum and crossed the high untrespassed sanctity of space, hands touching the face of God, then landed on her diapered bottom in the wood chips spread across the ground. I rushed over to Beanie, who sat stunned, and checked for signs of damage. (There were none.) StraightMan, to my recollection, just laughed.

I admit it: I was a scold, and I still am, but less so. I have learned. At least a little bit. StraightMan insists that kids hurt themselves only when we are watching them play. It is true when Beanie or Bubbie has become bumped or bloodied, it is usually when StraightMan is standing right there, at an arm's length or so. Now, another parent might regard this as evidence of StraightMan's supervisory skills or lack thereof - I know I have - but who among us has not had kids fall down and bang into each other, etc. on our own watch?

Also, it turns out that StraightMan might have science on his side, as science writer John Tierney reports in the NYT today. It reports that there is a downside to making playgrounds too "safe," removing tall slides and climbers and so on:

“Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,” Dr. Sandseter said. “Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”

Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

There is joy and triumph on Bubbie's face as he comes careening down the tongue slide (which you ride with your legs straddling either side of the slide, not with your legs in front). It is not that he knows no fear. Possibly the slide would be not that exciting without a little bit of trepidation. Yet, he takes whatever fear he might have into his own hands and manages it with his own efforts.

These days, I work hard not to hover and to squash what I realize are my fears. I guess I should have spent a little more time on the monkey bars myself :)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Walk around the block

A few weeks back, Beanie asked me: "Mommy, can I take a walk around the block?" As I gathered myself off the couch to go with her, she added: "By myself."

Unhesitating, I told her no. Yet, I also felt a tingle. Not of pride exactly, but a good feeling about her wish to act independently and her confidence and comfort with both who she is and where she is.

"Why not?"

B/c, I told her, the driveways along the block can be busy at 4pm, and "around the block" is a much longer distance than you think when you walk it alone, and you are only 7 years old, so I think you are a bit young to be on your own.

"When will I be old enough?"

We will have to see, I said.

I have thinking about this conversation as I have read the news coverage about Leiby Kletzky, which has spun quickly into attempts to draw the lesson of the story. Is it that parents need to keep a closer eye on their children? Or that horrors like this still remain the exception, not the rule?

It is hard not see that a young child is vulnerable in a way that an adult is not. (Also, that not all adults are equally vulnerable or invulnerable.) So far, the reporting seems to suggest that the man who took Leiby Kletzky was not necessarily a "predator" actively seeking children, but someone taking advantage of a situation that had presented itself.

What happened to the boy speaks to every fear I have as a parent, including the fear that I might make a mistake which brings harm to my child. No doubt Leiby Kletzky's parents regret their decision to allow their 8-year-old son to walk home by himself, but I am not convinced that they made a mistake.

I am not sure what lesson there is to learn.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Keeping up with The Times

If you have been following the coverage on Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his sudden reversals of fortune, then this op-ed piece, written by an anthropologist who has lived and worked in west Africa, is worth reading.

When I first heard that there were questions about the "credibility" of the woman who had accused DSK, my thoughts flew wildly to the conspiracy theories that had been floated among DSK's defenders. Could they have been right? Was it entrapment?

Then I read what the woman had done: Told a story that would enable her to gain asylum. Claimed on her tax returns a dependent who was not her child. Apparently allowed a boyfriend of questionable character to open bank accounts in her name to launder drug money.

They might not be honest actions, but can we not understand and explain them?

I fear that Mike McGovern's point, in his op-ed, will be lost on too many Americans who feel that there are too many immigrants, legal and especially illegal, in "their" country.

Americans have constructed mythologies that justify how and why they arrived on these shores: A taste for freedom, a thirst for democracy. Pluck. Hard work. Sacrifice. We tell stories about the values and characters of individuals, glossing over the larger historical contexts in which persons act.

News coverage suggests that prosecutors are backing off because they feel that the issue of credibility makes the case unwinnable: Because the woman lied on her application for asylum (which enabled her to leave Guinea) and on her tax return (BTW, I want to know how "honest" are the filings of the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and so on), she cannot be believed.

Casting doubt on a woman's virtue, thus casting doubt on the accusation she makes: The time-honored method of ignoring inconvenient truths about men and power.