Cotton wool: on letting climbing kids climb and falling kids fall



So much about my mothering life is different than I imagined. I thought today that I am both stricter and more easy-going than I thought I would be, as I put away the boys’ clothes at lightning speed. Lightning because Teddy was upstairs, by himself, and his crawling is now turbo-charged. Lightning because we no longer have stair-gates anywhere. And because he hasn’t yet fallen down the stairs, and there’s a first time for everything, and the first time will be soon.

Here’s where I’m less strict than I imagined: I thought I’d wrap them in cotton wool, and I don’t.

‘He will fall off that log in a minute’, I think, watching Henry from my perch on the bench. ‘I should get him down’.

I don’t move. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later he loses his footing and whacks his knee on his way down. He is outraged, and comes to show me. I administer the proper medicine (magic blow, kiss to injured area) and he goes off again. Henry’s legs have been a crossword puzzle of bruises since he could walk, just about.

I used to feel guilty about it. It used to feel like laziness. Perhaps you’re reading this, horrified. Let me offer some reassurances: I don’t let them anywhere near broken glass, I am as paranoid as it’s possible to be about road safety, I don’t take my eyes off them in water. But after meeting the imp on Henry’s shoulder, telling him to climb and jump and sprint, you’ll love it, I had to scrub off my sensitivity. It was either that or go insane. All Henry did, when he first learned to move, was climb higher than he should and fall off sooner than I wanted. The first few times, I sobbed along with him. After that, it stopped being such a big deal.

I read an article once about a playground in Wales deliberately constructed to be mildly dangerous – hills, piles of tyres, places to start little fires. The author talks about studies done a generation ago, where children found secret places to play and lived independent, imaginative lives away from their parents. Once print and electronic media made everyone hyper-aware of public danger, no one allowed their own children the same freedoms. The same authors went back to children now and tried to conduct the same studies, but found it was impossible. They were never left alone long enough to find places of their own.

I think the world now is not the world then, in many ways, and it pays to be vigilant. But one sentence in that article hit me so hard I can recite it: ‘In all my years as a parent, I’ve mostly met children who take it for granted that they are being watched‘.

And do I want to raise boys who never grapple with their own uncertainties or construct their own stories? Who wants a childhood without stories? I’ve got plenty from mine. I think it’s part of their development to know that falling happens, and sometimes bikes spin downhill faster than you can control.

So I let them scramble over trees and structures too big for them at the park. Teddy buzzes around on hands and knees, dangling himself over the edges of our bed and sofa. He sat on the grass today stuffing handfuls in his mouth, and I thought about googling ‘are daisies toxic?’ but decided against it. He’s just learned to climb stairs, and I’m trying hard to let him.

And I still sometimes feel guilty. But in my evolving, imperfect and – alright – a tad lazy Theory of Parenthood, I think a grazed knee goes a long way.


9 thoughts on “Cotton wool: on letting climbing kids climb and falling kids fall

  1. Exactly.

    I still remember the time Thomas was at an open playground and climbed up a twenty-foot pole. He got stuck. I knew he’d get stuck. I had to recruit an affable fifteen-year-old to get him down, because I couldn’t. I was scared, the whole time, that we’d end up in A&E. But I let him do it all the same, because they’ll never learn to pick themselves up if they don’t learn how to fall, and they’ll never learn how to fall if they don’t know how to climb.

  2. I read that same article back a while ago! That reminded me of my childhood, my boys are being raised very much along the same lines as yours by the sound of it.
    It’ll be tricky I think to find the balance between keeping them safe (by today’s standards) and letting them learn and explore but I really think it’s worth the try!
    My post about that park is called Childhood Memories should you choose to read it.

    • I agree – it’s such a hard balance to find! Because if anything terrible happened to them and you felt you could have prevented it then you’d never forgive yourself. And obviously you don’t want them seriously hurt. On the other hand, they do need to learn somehow!
      Thanks for the link to your post – I will definitely check it out 🙂

  3. I remember losing Grace, when she was just over a year, in a play area only to find her at the top of the tallest slide i had seen for sometime. I quietly climbed up behind her and taught her how to sit at the top and slide down the right way. She learnt fast. Other mother’s looked on horrified as i let my little tot climb that slide, she never fell, came down the slide a bit side ways sometimes, but learnt how to do it properly.

  4. I don’t think that’s lazy parenting at all. It takes huge effort – to stay sitting on my hands with my mouth clamped shut when the Bean does something I perceive as hair-raising. I read that article too and it’s stuck with me. We live in a busy city, every little bit of dirt is seen as suspicious, taking toddlers to the playground (the playground!) is not the done thing. I’m with you though: when the boy WANTS desperately to get stuck in and catapult off that slide or bed or chair, what can you do but let him? It’s hard but I sure as heck don’t want him to grow up all spooked by what his mummy thought MIGHT happen.

    • Yes, I completely agree. And I also spend so much time telling him not to do things – every two minutes, it feels like – that I just can’t tell him off for climbing too. Being able to try new things is such a valuable life skill! x

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