My daughter is three and a half and is going through a growth spurt. As a result, her feet aren’t always where she thinks they are and so she is falling down a lot. When she first started to stand, she fell down a lot, but almost always onto her padded bottom. When she started to walk, she fell down a lot, but was short and not moving fast. But now, she has been walking, running and climbing for quite a while. So when she trips over her feet, it is often spectacular and, at times, absolutely terrifying (for her and for her mom and me).
When she has a hard, fast fall, the tears can come equally hard and fast. And it presents an especially interesting moment in the experience of a parent.
As parents, we are hardwired to nurture and protect our children. In the moment, we defend them from danger and comfort their fears. But in the long-term, the child before us represents the adult they will grow into. Hopefully, if we parent successfully, that adult will be able to provide for their own safety and comfort.
So when our child falls hard and cries, we are torn by two very different and very powerful parenting mandates.
Some parents lean towards the immediate mandate. They discourage “dangerous” activities, but go overboard to the point that the child’s ability to grow and develop is stunted. And when they do get hurt, they are immediately scooped up protectively, denying them the ability to critically evaluate their own well-being and learn how to provide for their own comfort. This response comes from loving place in the parent, but it can ultimately undermine the confidence and independence of the child.
Some parents respond from the opposite end of the spectrum. The child is simply left to deal with it. Or even worse, the child is told, “You’re okay.” Though this does encourage independence, it can undermine a child’s sense of security and ability to connect with others when frightened or hurt.
What my wife (Julie) and I do with our daughter is a more moderate, deliberate approach.
First we ask her if she is injured. If so, we ask her to describe her injuries. Obviously, if she had a broken bone, heavy bleeding or a head injury, we would go into Dr. Dad or Dr. Mom mode and give her immediate medical attention. But though scrapes and bruises can hurt a lot, they heal quickly, so we let her self-examine those.
So we ask her describe her injuries. Where are you hurt? Can you continue playing? Do you need an ice pack? If she is particularly frightened, she might tell us she needs a hug. But this entire process teaches her the process of self-evaluation. She might be frightened and feel a sting, but she usually figures out that she is otherwise okay and ready to continue playing. We also often ask her to describe what happened/how she was injured if we didn’t see it–or even if we did. I think this can sometimes help her figure out what happened so she can learn from the experience.
But she is able to do this self-evaluation because we are there, supporting her through the process. We are not just keeping our distance and letting her figure it out on her own. Between us, my wife and I have the better part of a century’s worth of experience figuring out if we are okay or not (please don’t spend too long doing the math on that statement). It makes sense that we would share that experience with our three-year-old daughter and mentor her through the process.
We are also careful to acknowledge how she feels. Feeling afraid or in pain is totally appropriate and those feelings are part of who she is and what she is experiencing. To deny them with a statement such as, “Oh, you’re okay” shuts down her exploration of those feelings and ability to better understand them.
As parents, our challenge is to manage our fears and engagement. I’ve been in martial arts for 25 years now and have had some pretty hairy experiences during that time. Nothing compares to the spike of fear when I see my daughter hit the pavement hard. It is hard to not react to that fear, but instead act in a deliberate way.
And the opportunities for me to experience that fear are going to continue. Now she runs and rides her scooter and bicycle. Soon she will climb trees and participate in sports that come with a statistical likelihood for injury. Later on she will drive a car, date, live on her own…the opportunities for her to be hurt will always be there.
How we approach her skinned knee will give her the skills to better navigate those situations. It will also give us the emotional skills we need to better deal with watching her as she learns to do that navigation herself.
I hope that you have found this article helpful. If you have any questions on this topic, or want to share your experiences, please don’t hesitate to call me at the school or email me.
Our Philosophy Of Effort Over Achievement With Head Instructor Sabumnim Espy