Parenting Through Fear

Yesterday, when we went swimming, Agatha was excited to finally be old enough to wear the ‘grown up’ wristband at the pool. She no longer needs an adult beside her in the pool, and she isn’t required to wear a life jacket in the deep end.

I was nervous. To me, she doesn’t really know how to swim that well, and when I’ve tried to teach her to tread water, I’ve been less than successful. To me, my children should always wear life jackets. But I know that’s not what’s best for them. She was excited to swim without a life jacket. She was confidant in her ability. I was nervous.

We’d already been swimming for a while when we noticed the inflatable obstacle course in the next pool over, the deep pool. Agatha felt confidant, even more so than when we arrived. She wanted to try the course. Ella went first, then her, then me. I cautioned her not to fall of the side because the water was really deep.

Yep. In my head I thought about the water being too deep for her on either side of the obstacle course, but it didn’t occur to me that the course ended with a big slide into the deep end. Yeah…

She made it all the way through the course, climbed up the slide, and without hesitation slid into the deep water.

She looked panicked when her head bobbed up. But she did awesome treading water. The lifeguard asked if she needed help, she said yes. So the lifeguard tossed her a kick board, it didn’t quite make it, Agatha swam over to get it. She grabbed a hold, and looked at how far away the edge of the pool was, she kicked and kicked and finally made it. The entire time I shouted encouragement at her, but that was about all I could do. She was safe. She needed to do this herself.

When we all made it to the edge, she didn’t want anything to do with the obstacle course again. Even with a life jacket. I understood. She’d had a huge scare. But I also saw she’d done amazing. She’d been scared, but she stayed calm. She’d been scared, but she still managed to swim to the kick board. She’d been scared, but made it to the edge on her own.  She’d been scared, but I was terrified.

I could hardly stop shaking. I felt like I was going to throw-up. I wanted nothing more than to protect her from all harm, but I’d let her do something that could have seriously hurt her, or worse! The thought of that twisted my insides into knots.

But I know what it’s like to live in fear. I know what every day is like when you’re afraid of the potential harm that can come from any and all directions. I know what it’s like to live in fear and I don’t want my children growing up like that.

I talked to her. I empathized with her. We hugged and I told her how proud of her I was, then I asked if she’d like to get a lifejacket and try again. She said no.

I could have stopped there. I could have hugged her and let her know I supported her decision. Part of me wanted to. A big part.

But I didn’t think that was the best for Agatha. I did what any self respecting parent does, I bribed her.

I promised that on Monday I’d reload her Starbucks card, and together we’d go to Starbucks, just the two of us. All she had to do was try again, with a lifejacket. She said she still didn’t like the idea, but she’d do it. I hugged her.

She went through the obstacle course perfectly, but when she got to the top of the slide, she said she couldn’t do it. She sat there, almost crying. Afraid. I encouraged her, offered to push her, then suggested she slide on her tummy. She liked that idea.

Her head bobbed up, she sputtered a little, but quickly made it to the edge on her own.

I could tell instantly that that was it. She wasn’t going again. I was okay with that.

She told us she’d gotten water up her nose.

Ella laughed and said, “Me too!”
Agatha’s eyes widened, “Really?”
She paused to think a moment, then said, “I want to do it again!”

She loves and admires her big sister so much, but even she got water up her nose! She made her decision. A different decision. A surprising decision. So we went again, and again, and again.

It would have been easier had I just made Agatha wear a lifejacket when we first arrived. My fear said she should wear one. When we approached the obstacle course, I thought repeatedly that I should make her put on a lifejacket. But she was confident, and I didn’t want to dampen her confidence. When she was scared and didn’t want to go again, I could have let her walk away. I could have soothed my own fears so many times today. But for a moment of safety, I’d have taken away the opportunity for Agatha to feel such intense pride in her accomplishment. I’d have never seen the pure joy on her face. It’s a fine line to balance, but I error on the side of letting my children stretch themselves and even letting them get hurt or scared on occasion because, even with the pain and fear, the payoff is so huge.

It isn’t easy parenting through fear, even now, far from the pool, the idea terrifies me. The thought of all the ways my child could be hurt or killed haunt me. But it is vital to me to step back and let them fly. Because I know the if I hide a world of opportunities from them now, it’ll be that much harder for them to face the world in the future.

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