Batman: Model Parent
This weekend we took the boys to the park, because that’s what you do during the “winter” in Georgia.
J and I try not to hover-parent, but since the guys are just 3 1/2 we stand nearby when they want to play on the big kid equipment. At one point Owen decided to try this curvy ladder thing where you step from rung to rung and hold onto rails as you climb. He did it several times and started getting really confident. I warned him not to think too far ahead and to focus on putting his feet in the right place. But he’s 3, and hypothetical future consequence is a tough concept.
It was unfortunate that when J and I heard Jacob call, “watch me!” from the big twisty slide that both of our heads swiveled simultaneously like simple stimulus-response mechanisms.
At that moment Owen stepped into the void between rungs and put his weight down on nothing. He dropped like a stone, falling about 5 1/2 feet to the cedar wood chips below. His shoe fell off halfway down, an event we would later find out was as upsetting to him as the fall.
Now, as a human being you can’t stop the gasp. That’s reflexive. But as a parent you have to ask yourself what your reaction will teach your kid about the accident. And in the next fragmented seconds I looked to Batman for parenting support. Don’t ask me why, it was just the first thing I thought of.
J scooped Owen up as I wrangled Jacob so he wouldn’t wander off and have his own fall while we were distracted. Owen was hysterical. We checked him over and determined that he was sore, he’d had the wind knocked out of him, but he was mostly just frightened. He reached for me and I held him close.
“Owen,” I said quietly. Quiet is sometimes much better at getting kids to focus than loud. He momentarily suspended his crying and looked at me. “Owen, why do we fall?” He took a shuddering breath and waited for the answer. “So we learn how to get back up and do it right next time.”
Okay so it was a bastardized version of Chistopher Nolan’s brilliant line. But I was talking to a 3-year-old, give me a break.
He buried his head in my shoulder and purged more adrenaline tears. When he paused again I reminded him of the recent conversations we’ve been having about superheroes and what makes them all different and special. Superman can fly and Batman can’t, but Batman is super smart and can use his brain to figure out how to do anything. The Flash is the fastest, and Robin is an amazing gymnast who can jump and flip.
(This sounds like a really great parenting conversation but it started from a nerd rage argument when the boys wouldn’t stop insisting that Batman can fly, then decided Superman is better because flying is the best skill. Not in my house! Fuck Superman, Batman is better.)
I said, “Remember how we talked about how Batman is smart and he works hard to learn how to do things? Sometimes Batman falls, too. But when Batman falls he learns what he did wrong and learns how to get it right the next time.”
Eventually the outrage dissipated and Owen peered over at the offending jungle gym. I could see him mulling it over. Finally he said, “I don’t want to go on it again.” Then after a moment’s thought he added, “Next time I won’t fall.”
That’s all I wanted to offer him. I didn’t want to tell him that what happened wasn’t scary, or that it didn’t hurt. But I also didn’t want to teach him that everything that is scary or potentially painful is to be avoided. One of my favorite parenting blogs is Free Range Kids, because I firmly believe we’re swinging culturally towards an extreme end of the pendulum that says kids should never bump, fall or grapple with the distress of failure. I’m pragmatic. I’ve got two boys. They’re going to challenge each other to do stupid things. Teaching them disproportionate fear won’t help them distinguish between difficult and truly risky ideas.
Last night at bedtime Owen said out of nowhere, “I want to go to the playground and tell Batman I can do the ladder.” I told him I thought that was a good idea and asked him what he would do better next time. He told me he would watch his feet and be careful where he stepped.
As a post script, Jacob found a Justice League comic this morning and brought it to Owen. He said, “Here, you can tell Batman you won’t fall.” Owen returned a haughty gaze and said, “No, Batman doesn’t talk in that one.” Man I love those kids. And I love Batman.
Owen L, Jacob R