Today I took the gate down from the top of our staircase. The stairs look startlingly open and dangerous now. I stand at the top of them and feel very vulnerable, as though the big open space where the gate used to be is the mouth of a canyon, and I am teetering on the edge. Our youngest daughter, Jane, is more sure footed on them than I am (which isn’t hard, I must confess), so there is really no need to lock off the stairs anymore. At least, not for her safety. In actual fact the gate hasn’t been locked for a long time – since she learnt how to open it unaided (which happened much earlier than I expected). We kept it there to stop her accidentally slipping onto the stairs, but she is careful about playing near them, so the gate seemed redundant.
The wide open, gaping mouth of the stairway gave me second thoughts – I very nearly put the gate straight back again. But I realise that the gate was protecting me from my own fear, not saving my daughter from the stairs. My desperate instinct is to keep those gates up all over her life. Her innate drive is to learn how to open them. And she is a distressingly fast learner.
Growing up with protective parents, and 3 older sisters, who variously viewed me as their own private baby doll, or an uninvited gatecrasher, there were quite a lot of gates around my childhood. My own inclination is to put up all of those gates, and a lot more, to keep my beloved babies safe for ever. But of course they’re not actually babies anymore (and woe betide anyone who suggests that they are!), and it’s not possible for me to keep them safe. Wrapping them in cotton wool now might even make them more vulnerable in the long run.
It’s a real struggle, though, to find the right level of freedom, balanced with a reasonable level of protection. A few weeks ago my eldest daughter’s school newsletter reminded us of stranger danger. “Of course, I’m sure we all tell our kids not to talk to strangers,” it said. It made me wonder – have I stressed that enough with my kids? Neither of them is keen to talk to strangers, and we have tried to help them get past their shyness. Jane, who is 2 and a half year old, doesn’t like new people smiling at her, because “I don’t want to talk to them.” Perhaps we should be encouraging this trait – after all, we know that talking to strangers can lead to all kinds of traumatic scenarios that we’d rather not contemplate. Maybe we should be encouraging her wariness of strangers, rather than trying to help her relate to them.
But is teaching our kids that strangers are dangerous and scary really the best preparation we can give them for life? We certainly need to protect them from lurking horrors, but we also want to prepare them for a happy and successful life, and that inevitably involves meeting new people.
I struggle to find a balance that I am comfortable with, between protecting them from falling out of the nest, and encouraging them to take to the air. I have to fight my instincts almost every day, in order to strike a balance that doesn’t leave the kids feeling as though they are permanently locked in the house. It will be an eternal struggle – I think my own parents still struggle with it, and I am 37. I know that I need to push the boundaries, and edge outside of my comfort zone, in order to allow my kids to grow and thrive. They need to push their own boundaries, too – and my role is to cheer them on, and resist the urge to put those gates up.