I do lots of things for my kids when we’re at the park. I will applaud their monkey bar skills. I will cheer on their ability to climb to the top of a 30 foot climbing structure, and I will congratulate them on the ramp they zipped down. But there is one thing I won’t do — I refuse to help them do any of these things.
In fact, I have a rule for my kids when they ask for help after trying and failing to do something physically challenging: “Nope. Sorry. If you can’t do it on your own, your body must not be ready to do it.”
This rule came from a need to survive. My oldest kid is 7 and my twins are 5. When my kids were toddlers, finally old enough to run through a park or playground, my survival and their survival depended on me not helping them. One-on-one time with any of my kids is rare, so I was and continue to be outnumbered when I am with them.
I remember being at the park with all of three of my kids several years ago. My oldest daughter was struggling to do the monkey bars. She wanted me to hold her body while her arms and hands moved from one rung to the next. She wasn’t really “doing” the monkey bars, but in her head she had accomplished something.
I was proud of her for trying to conquer something even though she was nervous, but I was the one doing all of the work. I was sweating from constantly lifting her up and across the bars. And I was stressed from keeping an eye on my twins and redirecting them when they ate mulch, cried because they also needed help getting onto a slide, or came dangerously close to being kicked by another kid on a swing. It’s hard enough to keep all three of my kids in my field of vision sometimes, never mind trying to put a hand on each of them every time they flail in frustration when their bodies can’t do what their brains say they should.
Going to the park was supposed to be fun, maybe even relaxing. I did not factor in the role of playing cruise director for three hours. I was the crankiest and most resentful ship manager that ever lived. I just couldn’t do it.
So the next time we went, I changed my stance. I selfishly denied my children’s request for help. It didn’t go over well at first. My daughter was pissed she could only do one or two bars. She was mad at me for not holding her. My twins were not happy they had to use the steps to the slide instead of pulling themselves up/me pushing their bottoms onto the structure’s platform. There was a lot of crying. There was some side-eye from parents too. Especially from the ones who constantly had their hands on their kids while spotting them on the rock wall.
But I was more relaxed. I was able to be a better parent by looking like a heartless one. Instead of rushing to stop further mishaps or comforting a crying kid after they got hurt because I wasn’t able to monitor a situation, I was able to be preemptive. I never told my kids not to try something; I absolutely encouraged them to keep trying, but I was not going to physically help them navigate a piece of equipment. Over time they got used to hearing me tell them “no” when they wanted to be lifted onto something or escorted off. They began to understand their limits. They also began to embrace their fear.
When I wasn’t helping them, they were forced to either figure it out, or do something else. I watched them begin to navigate tricky situations in a safe way. I watched their confidence and problem solving skills soar. When they got stuck, I waited to see if they really needed help of if they were just panicked. I am not a monster, so of course I jump in when one of my kids is in trouble. Fear is what usually makes them scream though, not danger. I talk them through an obstacle rather than just plucking them from a tight spot. One time another parent tried to jump in and “save” my child, and I politely asked them not to. More side-eye.
It’s okay to watch our kids struggle. It’s not easy to do this, but their frustration is a necessary part of their learning. I couldn’t emotionally or physically help my kids all of the time—I still can’t. I needed them to be able to handle themselves in tricky situations—I still do. And hearing, “Sorry, your body must not be ready to do that,” when they want assistance has turned all three of my kids into very capable climbers, bike riders, and risk takers.
My kids still ask me for help, but they know what the answer will be. And yes, I get a little nervous when they climb to the top of a 30-foot spider web at the park, but the trade-off is knowing they will safely go up and come back down. It’s also being able to scroll through my phone for a few minutes and trust that no one is going to injure themselves or need me for 30-90 seconds at a time.
My kids still ask for all the snacks, but they will know what my answer will be if they ask for help. Goldfish are in the backpack and no—figure it out on your own or move on.