Our Fearless Kids.
Our Fearful Kids.

There are twenty-six rungs on the thirty-two foot ladder that leads to the entrance of the Balcony House cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park.

Thirty-two feet is no small distance, especially if you’re falling backwards onto hard ground, which is exactly what my son was certain he was going to do.

I didn’t grow up a fearful person so at times I have trouble empathizing with a six-year-old crying over something so seemingly trivial as climbing a ladder. After all, it’s a national park for Christ’s sake. Do you think they’d let you do it if it wasn’t safe? But here we were, his mom and I, looking at each other with that common look parents share asking the question of each other, “is this a battle we want to fight?”

And it’s difficult to answer that question and as a parent you’re constantly faced with it. There is no guidebook addressing when to capitalize on such “teaching moments” – when you should to push a child out of their comfort zone in order to make them better equipped for the world of adulthood. And after all, in most situations, as an adult, nobody really gives a damn if you’re scared or not. I’d go even further to say that in a lot of situations as an adult, if you’re not scared, you’re probably not growing.

But we want our children to be safe. The world has always been a dangerous place. I’m not qualified to debate whether it’s becoming more dangerous now, or if it’s simply the media promoting the sensational. But in either case, I certainly don’t want to be the parent that forced his kid to do something scary, only to have some tragedy come of the demand. So playing it safe is, well, safe. Plus, you get to be the loving, kind parent in your kids’ eyes. Who doesn’t want to be that?

Of course, this easily becomes habit. This pattern of complacency can give way to weak willed, co-dependent children. Children who become easy targets for the schoolyard bully. Who go on to become meek, soft-spoken intellectuals. Who lack the confidence that today’s world demands of those who want success. Or at least that’s conversation that plays out in my head.

One need not look far to find stories or advice columns supporting the do-or-die mentality. Seizing the day is demanded everything from children’s books to motivational speakers to energy drinks. And the confidence to do so is not something that a person summons out of thin air. It takes years — a lifetime — to become the kind of person that co-exists with fear in a healthy symbiotic relationship. You have to court fear again and again to know it. You have to become intimate with it in a way that you understand when it controls you in healthy ways. And when it cripples you.

I know that I can’t experience that on behalf of my kids. I understand it’s a journey they must take on their own. But it is my responsibility, and that of my wife, to curate those experiences. We are charged with guiding their journey with fear in a way that keeps them safe so that they may emerge from it with a healthy sense of what it means and how to use it to their advantage. That’s an incredibly difficult journey to guide, partly because our own journey is wrapped up in theirs. What if we screw up? What if we shelter them too much? What if we force them up that ladder and they fall? These are questions of fear, which cloud our ability to guide their journey.

Where we are left is a space that makes parenting simultaneously the most challenging and rewarding endeavor a human can possibly undertake. The range of acceptable outcomes is massive so we have very little to benchmark against. We feel around blindly with every decision hoping that this one won’t lead us down a path that we’ll later regret. I find these tests of navigating fear to be some of the most challenging ones I’ve experienced as a parent. Helping your child understand fear carries a tension between nurturing a child and raising a child. Tensions like this one are probably what make parenting so damn hard. But are also what makes us such interesting, wonderful, and yes, sometimes terrible creatures.