“Lovis,” Matt said to his wife, “our child must learn what it’s like living in Matt’s Forest. Let her go!”
“Ah, so you've seen it at last,” said Lovis.
“It would have happened long ago if I’d had my way.”
And from then on Ronia was free to wander at will. But first Matt had one or two things to say to her.
“Watch out for wild harpies and gray dwarfs and Borka robbers,” he said.
“How will I know which are wild harpies and gray dwarfs and Borka robbers?” asked Ronia.
“You’ll find out,” Matt said.
“All right,” said Ronia.
“And watch out you don’t get lost in the forest,” said Matt.
“What shall I do if I get lost in the forest?” Ronia asked.
“Find the right path,” said Matt.
“All right,” said Ronia.
“And watch out you don’t fall in the river,” Matt said.
“What shall I do if I fall in the river?” Ronia asked.
“Swim,” Matt said.
“All right,” said Ronia.
“And watch out you don’t tumble into Hell’s Gap,” Matt said.
He meant the chasm that split Matt’s Fort in two.
“What shall I do if I tumble into Hell’s Gap?” Ronia asked.
“You won’t be doing anything else,” Matt said, and then he gave a bellow, as if all things evil had suddenly pierced his heart.
“All right,” said Ronia when Matt had finished bellowing.
“I shan’t fall into Hell’s Gap. Is there anything else?”
“There certainly is,” said Matt. “But you’ll find out bit by bit. Go now!”
That’s how it goes in Astrid Lindgren’s book “Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter”, and here’s what Ronia did next: She ran into the forest, making sure to watch out for wild harpies and avoid falling into the river or tumbling into Hell’s Gap.
Very few of us live in a world like Ronia the Robber’s Daughter and the robbers of Matt’s Fort. Surrounded only by forest and nature and the rhythm of the seasons.
Instead of from wild harpies and Hell’s Gap, danger comes from traffic and failing at school, for example. And we want to protect our loved ones from those things.
Encouraging trust and self-efficacy
Unfortunately we can’t always protect them. That’s one thing. The other is that children need freedom and space in order to live their own experiences, test physical boundaries and find out what they can achieve by themselves.
Self-efficacy means being aware that you can solve even difficult problems by your own actions. By trying to shield our youngest from all problems and challenges, instead of “helping” them, we hinder this natural and important process.
Yes, we do object when the five-year-old is practising somersaults on the trampoline while holding a pair of shears. But with many things we can be sure that the challenges they pick for themselves are ones that they can also master. Just like learning to walk, children go through certain stages of development.
We as parents don't have to do much at all: Let our children get on with it. But often that’s the hardest thing of all, because we feel responsible for their well-being and are quick to blame ourselves if they get hurt, if they fall, or if we find out that others have been teasing them.
But what do children learn if we remove all challenges, if we “protect” them from all dangers? They learn that we don't trust them to solve problems by themselves. Regardless of whether the “problem” is a climbing frame that we think is too high, the journey to school, which the child wants to cover by bike, or the first holiday that the teen-aged daughter wants to go on with her friends: These are all tasks that help children to grow, even if they sometimes pick up a bruise or two on body or soul. Bruises disappear; the feeling of having overcome a challenge alone stays. And these adventures help us, too, to grow, gently preparing us for the fact that one day we will have to let go. It's wonderful if our children then have roots and wings.
Just in case you now feel like saying “It’s all very well, but...”, we’ve collected a few stories from Team Wildling - our own memories of challenges, but also parental reactions in situations where we dearly want to shout out to our kids, “Nooooo, stop it!”.
Sense of adventure and the right amount of looking away
Most often, those of us with young children talked of situations like this one: “I particularly remember how my daughter, 1.5 at the time, cheerfully followed her brother up the ladder of the high slide. She couldn’t walk yet, but she was very good at climbing. Inside I was freaking out, but somehow I managed to go over to her very calmly and to tell her I just wanted to watch because I thought what she was doing was sooo great. At the end she stood on the slide on her wobbly legs, proud as a peacock and beaming with joy.” (Anna F.)
Some still remembered their own adventures:
“At about 25 (!) I was in Australia and on a real adventure trip. Of course that included parachute jumping. So, beaming with joy, I phoned my parents from the other end of the world and screamed into the telephone: “I'm just about to jump out of an aeroplane!!!” My father’s response: “If you do that I’m not speaking another word to you”.
Of course I jumped anyway, and on the phone afterwards they couldn't stop telling me how much they loved me. But it was only against their better judgement, with an increased heart rate and sweaty palms, that they watched the video of the jump.” (Nicole)
Christina has twins and has adventures twice over: “At the age of two, my children climbed up on the big climbing frame or explored Berlin on their balance bikes; at four they swam in Australian waves, and in our camper van we travelled the continent. Now, at six, they go to school by themselves on the city bus. The result is pride, joy, self-confidence and a small tear drop in the corner of my eye (“they’ll be leaving home soon”).”
Janina is glad when her elder daughter has the courage to test herself and her boundaries:
“On holiday the girls wanted to go ahead to the beach, while we were still tidying up in the camper van. The beach was within view, and about 10 metres away. So I gave them permission. Not more than three minutes later, the two of them (2 and 7) were standing on the cliffs next to the beach. I nearly had a heart attack. But by then it was too late to forbid it anyway, so I let them go ahead (they spent ages climbing around as the sun went down, observing crabs, playing and looking at the sea). And now my eldest says it’s her “best ever” holiday memory. And “but Mama, you know that you can climb well in Wildlings, you don't need to be scared!”
And so she learned about a boundary, rather than being told not to do something.”
In the Badger family they have lots of experience with letting go and trusting in the children's abilities:
“We’ve really got the whole range of ages here, and regardless of when, who or how... As soon as they want to take their next steps, you can only breathe and let go. We tried - and are still trying - to create a foundation that allows each one to make a good assessment of their own abilities, to give our children a package of important things and then to trust. If you don’t leave your comfort zone again and again, bravely taking the next steps, then you stagnate. We don’t want to transfer our fears and worries to our children; they’re allowed to have their own experiences.
I see the barely two-year-old jumping from the 3m board into his father’s arms, and I have to look away. Giving the eleven-year-old the gift of a parachute jump... experiences they’ll never forget. But we too, as parents, have to have faith and support each other.
The best experience is simply having achieved it... it’s not about parental praise, applause or the party, but about having been successful yourself, the tingly feeling in your stomach.
I like the example of a toddler’s first steps... That's something we can't influence... They walk when they can and not when we want them to... We might motivate them perhaps, but in reality we can’t contribute anything. Funnily enough that's something that all parents want to encourage, even if children might hurt themselves doing it. Why not cheerfully applaud other steps, too, that our children want to take?”
On what adventures have you overcome challenges? Which of your kids’ adventures make you catch your breath (or cover your eyes...) but you let them do it anyway?
Run wild! Anna, Ran & Team Wildling