“Mothers from miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hold onto things tighter than their parents think they will.”
— E.B. White, “Charlotte’s Web”
At school pickup, I stand outside the chain-link fence that separates the kindergarten playground from the parents. Our 5-year-olds walk in orderly lines from the building to the yard. They blink in the afternoon sun, disoriented after many hours indoors.
The bell rings and, freed from their teachers, the children run with sudden energy to the yard’s small jungle gyms. The gate swings open to usher us in. Some kids enjoy the slides, others play hopscotch or draw on the concrete with chalk, and a few curl into their parents’ or babysitters’ laps to release the tensions of the day.
My child runs straight for the 15-foot fence and begins scaling it. Picture a cross between Spider-Man and the Flash, and you have my daughter. I consider it my greatest achievement that I have never lost her; her agility is matched only by her speed. I often place a large red bow in her hair as a visual tracking device. It helps me spot her dangling from trees or hanging upside down from scaffolding. Once we leave our apartment, I am always trying to catch up with her.
Her energy often wears me out; I must maintain a distant vigilance, always balancing her sense of freedom with (rare) concerns about her judgment. She scales rocks and swings from gates. She leaps over six concrete steps to the pavement below. Sometimes I wish for a less active child but I remind myself that this trait — this athleticism — will serve not just her body but her mind as she develops.
I can handle my child; I’ve been doing it for years. It’s the admonitions of strangers that depletes me. As my daughter scaled about eight feet of fence today, rapidly placing each foot in a loop of wire as she ascended, her friends watched in fascination. One little girl gamely jumped for the fence and was making a decent attempt to climb it when her father scolded her. “We don’t climb fences,” he said loudly, making sure I heard him. I absorbed the assault on my judgment with the passive face I’ve mastered for such moments.
I’ve developed a thick skin after years of strangers sending me the signal that my child’s exploits are dangerous and that I am irresponsible for allowing her to engage in them. Recently, my child was navigating a wide ledge about four feet off the ground (penny-ante stuff) when a woman approached to tell her — despite the presence of her mother — that she had to get down immediately. The woman was so anxious that she tried to physically remove my daughter from the ledge. I responded with a rote, “Really, she’s fine. She’s quite capable.”
I give each worried stranger a reassuring smile and usually they relent, looking back anxiously at my imperiled little girl. This particular woman, though, persisted. “She’s wearing sandals; those are slippery!” I replied once more: “Her brain is making accommodation for that, you can be sure.” Peeved, the woman at last retreated, and I formed another battle scar in the fight to allow my child to navigate her physical world without impediment.
My daughter has rarely skinned a knee, much less broken a bone. Even if she had, I would not try to stop her quest for high adventure. She needs an intense level of physical activity, and that’s been true since she was a baby, when she taught herself to crawl by throwing a toy a great distance and heaving her body toward it. When she was a toddler, I had to run her like a Labrador to burn through her extra energy. Sometimes we’d get to Central Park before sunrise, where she’d gallop down hills and wander winding paths. She could climb every step of Belvedere Castle when she was scarcely more than 2. I’d never seen the sun rise in the park, nor witnessed how it shines on the waters of Turtle Pond until I had this child — this wondrous, acrobatic, exhausting child.
The most painful criticism I withstand is that I am an excessively permissive parent and that I don’t discipline my child — as though scaling fences and running quickly are bad behavior. I’ve been scolded countless times and informed that “children need boundaries.” What makes these admonitions frustrating is that I do, in fact, discipline with rigor. I have no tolerance for rudeness, for whining, for unwarranted aggression. I talk to my child frequently about empathy and manners. She has chores each morning and evening, and I ferociously police the number of toys in our house. It’s annoying to be considered indulgent and irresponsible by strangers because my child dashes like lightning down the street. Her behavior is not a transgression, but it is often treated as such.
We should want for all our children the kind of sure-footedness that only repeated explorations of varied terrains can provide. Interfering with risk-taking mammalian play imperils our young by undermining their confidence. It also disrupts their development. I have to keep myself from shouting, “Leave them alone! Let them play!”
I wonder also how often I’d be criticized if my child were a boy. I’d make a study of it, but I’ve never seen a boy the same age who is as fearless or muscular as my daughter. Or maybe I don’t notice the boys who jump from great heights or shinny up poles — I don’t notice them because I have been conditioned to expect this behavior from boys. Are we still a society that trains girls to “behave” by undermining their confidence in their own bodies’ strength and ability?
Some strangers, clearly stunned by my daughter’s feats, seem to alleviate their anxiety by reminding her — and themselves — that she is a girl. When she leaps from scaffolding and lands at someone’s feet like a cheetah on the prowl, she is often greeted with: “Such a pretty face!” Or, “What a pretty dress that is!” What a pretty dress that is. She just sailed five feet through the air — and it wasn’t the dress that did the jumping.
Last week we found ourselves at the perimeter of Sheep Meadow. School was closed for the day, and blissfully, the weather complied. Autumn sunshine and blue skies abounded; the leaves had begun to turn. My daughter began to scale the fence that surrounds the meadow. It is a well-traveled path in the park, and on this beautiful day, dozens of strangers were walking past. I braced myself for the chorus of anxious cries. My daughter swung her leg over the top of the fence and began her descent to the ground. Then she reversed her journey, and, growing tired of fence-climbing, she jumped to the path. An elderly woman with silver hair, walking with the assistance of a cane, had stopped to watch my child.
“Your daughter is willful and determined. I wish all children — especially girls — were allowed to roam free. May she never change.” With that, the woman continued down the path, and I nearly collapsed in tears. It is folly to depend on the kindness of strangers, but it’s an utter joy to receive it without any expectation.
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actor and dancer in New York City. She has written for Salon; Vela Magazine; The Toast; Brain, Child; The Washington Post; Word Riot; Off the Shelf; and others. You can find her at lesliekendalldye.net, on Twitter @LKendallDye, or putting her child to sleep. She tries not to put others to sleep.
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