The C-word. It’s getting out of control. I’m using it twenty, thirty times a day. I’m using it when other words could take its place: better, more colourful, kinder words. I’m using it when I really don’t need to.
One of the scariest things about being a parent is how your reflexes take over and show you yourself in stark clarity. It’s a bit like trying on new swimwear under fluorescent lights in the change room at Target.
Now I have a full-blown toddler (sounds like some kind of illness, right?) the word I find leaving my lips, over and over again, is CAREFUL.
I say it at the slightest provocation: the cup that might spill, the step down that might be too big, the chair that might tumble. There are cars about. There’s a puddle. That tea is hot. There are trip-hazards scattered throughout our entire lounge-room.
And the message isn’t act with care, it’s DANGER. ‘Careful’ comes direct from fear, justified or not.
Because, acting with care is something else again. To do a thing with care is to pay attention, to focus, and to draw that focus and attention from curiosity and love and not from mindless anxiety.
And half the time when I say ‘be careful’ it’s after the accident has already happened. Bump, tumble, break – CAREFUL!
Helpful? No, not particularly!
Do I actually want to teach my son that his predominant means of navigating the world should be risk minimisation?
I want him to explore, to use his energy, to find the limits of his skills and edge the outwards. I want him to have the opportunity to be brave, confident, happy, even if that means occasionally taking a tumble.
And I know that as he gets older, the risks will change, some will recede, others will replace them. I don’t want him to be scared of trying something for fear of failure, or because of what other people might think, or because there’s a way in which it could hurt him.
Recently, he’s started saying ‘Careful Jack,’ and it makes me feel like someone is squeezing my heart. I don’t want that to be the voice he hears in his head! I know I need to use my own words with greater care and conscious intent.
There’s a playground near our house. There’s stuff for bigger kids, and stuff for littler kids. I class my son as little – he’s only just turned 2! He’s tall for his age but seriously, he still just falls over sometimes for no reason at all.
At this playground, there are a series of ladders that lead up a series of platforms to quite a significant height. Then there’s a bridge crossing, and a couple of big slippery dips to get back down again.
Jack managed to climb the first ladder. He really, really, really wanted to climb the next ladder but it’s been designed not to be accessible to smaller kids. And I didn’t want him to go any higher, because there are sheer drops and all sorts of things that terrify me up there (I’m not great with heights!)
So I said ‘Let’s try climbing the ropes, that looks fun,’ in an attempt to divert him from the ladder. We try the ropes. I haven’t thought this through. He starts to climb and he JUST DOESN’T STOP.
He climbs, higher and higher, past the height of the first ladder, the second ladder, and before I know it he’s out of my reach. I can’t stop him and I can’t get him down.
I start to climb up behind him, with the intention that if he falls he’ll land on me on the way down. I feel like a bit of an idiot – all the parents with big kids have just been cheerily watching them go up and down without a worry. But this is my baby. He’s not ready for this. There could be a terrible accident.
He gets all the way to the top, then somehow clambers his way, with me awkwardly terrified behind him, onto the highest platform.
And in all that time, I didn’t once say ‘careful’. I was too fucking terrified.
But the experience made me think – the gap between what he can do, what I’m ready for him to do, what’s actually safe, and what’s just a wild adventure, is totally blurred.
My heart, mind and adrenal glands all say different things.
Ah the joy of parenting!