The Unexpected Light
By Erica Cantoni, Manager of Corporate and Major Gift Engagement
On a recent sunny Sunday, I followed my 16-month-old daughter, Junie, as she slowly but rather fearlessly climbed up dozens of wooden steps and platforms to the top of our local playground. As she stood contemplating the view and her next move, an older boy scrambled up, looked her over and declared, “This is only for big kids.” Restraining the roar of my inner Mama Bear, I responded, “Well, that’s not true, actually. She’s strong and brave and she belongs up here too.”
Across the head of this kiddo, I saw my husband laugh and roll his eyes at me. Pretty cool and courageous to stand up to a five-year-old, right?
As I toned it down and encouraged Junie to play with the bigger boy – who I agreed, was also very strong and brave – I got to thinking about how viscerally committed I feel to making sure my daughter is never told that she isn’t “enough” to follow her curiosity or dreams or heart. And yet, too often, I am the one standing in the way of her full capabilities.
It’s funny how much of a difference there is between adoring your children, thinking they are brilliant and funny and artistic and courageous… and actually restraining yourself enough to let them climb to the height of each of those strengths and stand alone.
Earlier this summer, I watched Uly, Junie’s twin brother, crawl to the edge of our very tall bed, flip over on his belly and throw his legs over the edge. Had I been closer, I would have rushed forward to help. I would have urged him to slow down and issued instructions on how he could tackle this maneuver safely, all while pressing my hand to his back with loving caution.
But I wasn’t close enough to do any of that and thank goodness I wasn’t. For the first time, I realized Uly is fully capable of navigating this drop on his own. He knew when to fling and when to cautiously lower and he stuck that landing like a pro. The next day, he did it again, maybe a hair too fast, and toppled over backward against the wall. Then he shook it off and carried on his way.
Both outcomes – the perfect descent and the sudden sprawl – he did on his own. He wrote and owned the success and lessons of both and he didn’t need me in either. I then understood that my idea of what he and Junie are capable of is just way too small. That I keep trying to squeeze them into this tiny, neatly labeled tote that I can safely carry, instead of letting them grow up and explode into a messy riot of potential.
Someday, scooting off of beds is not going to be the biggest challenge or opportunity before my kids. I know that a world of rugged unknowable mountains and bottomless valleys lie before us… and that’s just in middle school! I know the stakes are only getting higher, so I want to practice now.
I want to stop underestimating my kids.
I want to open my grasp and let more of my assumptions and control blow away. Because the beautiful scary truth is that I don’t always know how they will respond in a situation or what the outcome will be. I don’t always know what they’ll love or what will scare them or what they are ready to safely accomplish.
As a parent, it’s a badge of honor to understand our kids better than anyone… but I need to get comfortable with part of them remaining unknowable. They need to get comfortable with some part of their own capabilities being mysteriously unknown or how else will they learn to mine for real potential?
This year, I want to let them surprise me. I want to quiet my words and slow my hands. Listen and watch more. I want to practice saying “I am here if you need me, but you know what kiddos? I bet that won’t be as often as it used to be.” The messages I send so often – to slow down, be careful, listen to how I would do it – are so much more about protecting me than investing in them. It’s hard for me to stomach their pain or struggle, but I know it is the currency that will buy their strength and self-actualization.
One of my top values as a parent is tenderness. It is incredibly important for them to know that I will treat them with love and kindness and compassion no matter what – that even when they’re wrong, we will handle it with respect. But for myself, some of my top values are courage and doing hard things. So how do I find the guts to keep combining those values – which I wholeheartedly believe create a worthwhile life – with the soft and comfortable little nest I’ve built around my baby birds?
I’m still figuring it out. But I’m pushing myself to practice every day. To be a few steps further behind them as they roar out into the world. To say, “I can’t wait to see how you approach this,” instead of “Be careful,” or “Let me give you some advice.” I want to give my kids the freedom and confidence to outpace me and what I or anyone else believes of them. I don’t want them to be afraid to shine so brightly they break the dimmer switch I sometimes keep on them.
As Marianne Williamson has written, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
I’m ready to marvel in the abundant, uncomfortable, unexpected light of my kids.
And maybe that is part of my whole life’s work, to love the people in my life this way more often: quietly, openly and with a heart that is ready to be surprised by their particular glow. To let people be just as big as they are and never be afraid of their potential.