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Learning that kids are not as fragile and vulnerable as we fear

Tanika Davis.
Tanika Davis. (Jeffrey F. Bill / Baltimore Sun)

On a sunny day over spring break, a friend and I took our children to Double Rock Park in Parkville. We packed snacks, bubbles, balls and a blanket, and we intended to sit and gab while the five kids — ages 3, 4 and 5 — played on a sturdy play set and threw rocks into a little, muddy creek at the park's edge.

We gave the kids one rule: Don't get wet.

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Somehow, though, throwing rocks became throwing bigger rocks and making more and more spectacular splashes. We wiped their faces a few times and reminded them, "Don't get wet!"

Inevitably, their shoes were sopping. Then their shirts. Someone "slipped" and sat, giggling, in the brown water. Before we knew it, they were jumping off rocks cannonball-style into the creek. They all got so thoroughly drenched, the kids jokingly called it "the pool."

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We watched the progression, perturbed at first. How were we going to dry these maniacs? Why don't children ever listen? Eventually, we watched with more resignation. Oh, well. They're soaked now. We might as well let them have their fun. And it was fun, for all of us. The kids were having the time of their life, unharassed by hovering, naysaying parents; and the two of us were actually getting to talk — uninterrupted. We'd call this day a total win, we laughed, so long as no one got sepsis.

I tell you this story not to extol the awesomeness of letting your children play in a creek of questionable cleanliness (although, seriously, when this chilly weather breaks, you should totally do it), but to contrast it with another story, from nearly six years earlier.

It was a beautiful May day, sometime in the first few weeks after our boys were born. My husband and I were restless and cabin-feverish, so we decided to take the babies to Panera for a quick bite to eat. But when we got there, the eatery was crowded and too loud, I thought. I worried that the noise would hurt their ears or bother their gentle newborn spirits. While we ate, I felt the walls closing in on us. Like something out of a horror movie, the people eating at the tables around us seemed out of focus. They laughed in slow motion, heads thrown back, mouths gaping and grotesque. I knew in my soul that someone in that dining room was seconds away from eating my babies. "The babies are not safe here," I told my husband, tears flowing down my face. "We have to leave."

Today, we laugh about my absolute certainty that the Panera patrons were cannibals, poised to swallow our boys whole. But at the time, that's just how viscerally I felt about their safety. Another time, I freaked out when my sister tossed bread crumbs to birds outside while the boys slept in their stroller. "What if those birds have the avian flu?!" I yelled. She looked at me like I'd gone crazy.

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Looking back, I can't blame her. I was a little crazy.

I'd just had my first babies; they confounded and consumed me. I worried about every single thing, from the fragrance-free laundry detergent we used on their clothes to the brand of cloth diapers for best cushioning their precious little bottoms. My heart beat out of my chest when I carried them down steps, so sure was I that I would stumble and hurt them — these fragile beings, helpless mewing things, in need of so, so much. How many ways were there to fail them? It was overwhelming.

Thankfully, babies grow into children. They skin their knees and live to tell the tale. They survive hand, foot and mouth disease, chicken pox, pneumonia. They get their feelings hurt by a once-loved friend, and it wounds you more than it does them. They bounce back, they heal, they persevere, they thrive.

I know it's frightening, but parents, they're OK.

Let them climb the tree. Let them play in the dirt. Let them get wet.

Each time their scrapes scab over, the skin on the parents grows thicker too. We learn to let go; we learn to let them live.

Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who now works as director at a communications firm. She and her husband have twin 5-year-old sons, a 4-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap. She can be reached at tanika@thehatchergroup.com. Her column appears monthly.

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