September 13, 2000

"I figure if they don't come home with scrapes and bruises,
then they are not learning anything."

I enjoyed a walk with a certain young man, all of 20 months old, and his parents yesterday. The day was lovely in the way that summer-to-fall transition days often are, simultaneously warm and golden, yet still somehow cool and foggy. We walked among hills burnished with dry grasses and small-leaved members of the sage family, in a sea of feathery pampas grass waving over our heads. By our feet, the blackberry leaves were starting to shift from green to reddish-brown.

Our climb to the top of a hill was steep; the child, riding in the most complicated frame pack I've ever seen, was distressed. Once we'd achieved the summit and freed him from his buckles, straps and portable shade, his disposition returned to its usual sunny state. While Mom caught her breath, he explored the hill top with Dad, the blonde-brown of his thickening curls appearing and disappearing over the tops of the dried grasses. I watched the grasshoppers flee in droves before his wandering feet.

He refused to ride back down the hill, insisting instead on his independence, tugging his hand away from the assistance of his parents and taking off at a rapid wobbling walk. (Interesting that we manage to learn to walk with diapers bunched between our legs. Suddenly, I understand why we call them "toddlers.") The ground was dry and slick with loose pebbles, and our toddling companion didn't yet know how to recognize and respond to this potentially dangerous footing. But try to carry him over the uneven terrain, and he'd cry and ask for "down." Leave him on the ground, and he'd slip and fall, scraping an elbow or his forehead, dissolving into tears; pick him up to comfort him and, sure enough, he would insist again on "down."

He settled on a compromise after he'd fallen twice and would reach for his mother's hand when he felt the ground was not quite baby-friendly. Thus protected, he'd look a little closer at the gullies carved in the path by the winter rains and the berry leaves changing colors. This walking thing, this exploration, was pretty cool.

What a balance to keep! The parents' instinct to protect, a child's urge to explore and desire for independence. How difficult it must be to stand back and allow your child to suffer the injuries of discovery and self-determination. How do you know when to step in to prevent major harm? How do you know when life's little lessons are about to become major accidents? A misstep could scrape a knee or break a leg... At what point do you step back and pray for the former?

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