How We Learn

We spent this morning at the five-story suburban indoor mazelike climbing/bouncing place, and May did something that rocked our world.

On previous visits, she’d been pretty clear that she wanted to stay close to the ground, and that was fine. There’s a little climbing wall, a big slide, two bouncy houses, and a lot of other fun swing-y and hang-y stuff within arm’s reach of the floor.

This time she wanted to see what was up higher. But not alone. So I went up, too, August scrambling between us and then clinging like a baby monkey to my shoulder as we got high enough to make her queasy. After one trip down the steep slide with a view of many feet of nowhere before the floor and several minutes of cowering away from the transparent mesh walls waiting for May to get her fill of trips up and down the slide, August started to panic. “Get down? How get down? Get down!” And I found myself in the classic two-child catch-22: the only way to soothe one child was to make the other very, very unhappy.

I told May she could either come down with us or stay up high alone for a while, and she put her sweaty face down on the blue mat and bawled. Then she pulled herself together and followed us. I was going to lead us all down the easy way (giant padded steps), but May spotted the Big (20-foot, hollow, plexiglass) Tree (with a ladder down the middle) and really really really wanted to climb down it.

Only when she got inside it, she became terrified and started bawling. I told her it would be easier to go down another way, and tried to take her hand to help her out, but that made her furious. “I want to do it!” I could hear her howling all the way down the ladder. But she did it, and when August and I arrived at the bottom of the steps, May was standing outside the tree with her hands behind her back, looking up, grinning.

And then she wanted to go up and climb down the big tree again, and cried and cried on the bench next to me talking about how she was afraid to go alone because she would get lost. We sat together for a long time talking about landmarks, about asking a grown up for help, about how strong and steady she is going down ladders and slides, and about all the places in the climbing maze where she could look out and see me down on the floor with August. She became calm and resolved and headed up the padded steps by herself.

Then she started wailing again. “I don’t know where to go! How do I get to the tree! I can’t doooo it! Waaaaaah!” I climbed halfway to where she was. I reminded her that she didn’t have to do this if she didn’t want to, and that enraged her. So I talked her through where to go, and she did it, red and trembling and sopped with tears.

When she wanted to do it again, I just stood on the ground really close to the climber and gave her one little hint, and she did it all on her own. She was still tense and crying almost the entire time. But when she was done, I think she was the proudest of herself I’ve ever seen her. I was, too.

I think she was the only kid in there today (and definitely the only four-year-old) who did so much howling. And most of the children scrambling with abandon waaaay up by the high, high ceiling were younger than her.

But for May, this was enormous—flexing her muscles and exploring somewhere genuinely scary on her own. And it’s not just what she did; it’s how.

Raising this shy, reserved girl, I’ve wished so often that her fear and hesitation would dissolve. I’ve hoped that she’d take off up those ladders one day like an extroverted three-year-old. At times those monsters (the sames ones who can still get their jaws around my neck) have seemed to ease their hold on her, and we’ve both relished that. But this was grander: Her fear didn’t vanish today, but I saw her find the will to fight right through it.

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4 thoughts on “How We Learn

  1. This was an inspiring post- because May was so brave, and because you gave her the space to be brave. I’m not sure I could have done it, even though it is abundantly clear that it was the right thing to do.

  2. What a wonderful story. My A is a lot like May, and I struggle with being patient enough to help her through situations like these. You both did great!

  3. Gatito is like her, too. The basics of who he is are remarkably consistent– and have been since he was 2 months old. Watching him mature and evolve to manage his strength and weaknesses, fears and interests, is positively fascinating.

  4. Wow-you are brave. i never take my kids there, for the very reasons you so expertly describe. I got stressed out just reading about your visit. Hurray to M for being a badass! And you too!

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