The other day my 15 month old decided to climb to the top of the slide. It’s not a particularly tall slide. When she got to the top by herself she was so pleased with her accomplishment. She smiled and danced around a little. At some point she decided she wanted to get down. She looked down the slide. That didn't seem like a good option. Then she looked back down the ladder, that seemed even worse. At that point she looked to me. She reached for me and made a sound that I knew meant "Help me." It wasn't urgent or desperate, just uncertain. I NEVER ignore a call for help, but I’m also careful not to come swooping in to the rescue (unless it’s a true emergency.) Usually my response is more measured. This is what it looked like on this day.
I came closer, but not close enough for her to jump off the top of the slide into my arms with this blind trust she has that I will catch her. When I got close enough I said, "It looks like you want to get down, but you aren't quite sure how to do that." "I'll show you" came the little voice of my five year old behind me. He climbed to the top and carefully negotiated his way past my little one. "See. Like this" he said and sat down and expertly slid down the slide. My little one sat down at the top and considered it. While her brother encouraged her to go down, but she was not comfortable with the idea. The two of them did this little dance several times before the five year old declared, "She doesn't want to slide." and he was off to his next adventure, leaving my little one atop the slide and still no way down.
For a while she was happy there, then she turned to me again. The “help me” look. "You don't want to slide down," I said. "You can go down the ladder." I gave the ladder a tap so she would know what I was talking about. She looked for a while. She sat down facing out, hung her feet over the edge and looked at me like I was crazy. "You can turn over on your tummy." I gently patted her tummy then patted the top of the slide. "Remember when you came up your tummy was right here." She looked at the ladder considered it and then turned around and laid on her tummy. I waited a moment. "The first rung is right here," I said, tapping it. "You can reach it with your toes," I gently touched her toes. She stretched them out and touched the rung. Then she clambered back to standing and turned to see were she had been.
At this point I began to hear a little voice of doubt in my head. "Why are we doing this? This is taking forever. She wants down, just lift her down. Is this really worth it?" She got down on her tummy again and reached for the step with her feet. Then she stood again. She did this several times. When she was dangling over the side she looked at me and made the "A little help here" sound. I came closer. "I think you want to go down to the next rung but you don't know what to do with your hand." I touched her hand gently. "You can put it on the top here." I tapped the spot. She did. "Now stretch your toes down to the next rung" (touch and tap) She did. "You can put your hand on the rung" (touch, tap) But she put it on the side. "That will work too." Then I realized I can stop "helping" now. Slowly and with very deliberately considered movements, she made her way down. Watching that was the answer to voice of doubt in my head.. She reached the bottom and stood up with a huge grin on her face. She didn't look to me. The beaming look of pride on her face was all about her.
What did she gain from this? First and foremost, she built self confidence. She faced a situation she was unsure about, she made her own choices and -- with a very small amount of guidance -- she successfully made her way down. I made some suggestions, but she made many of her own choices. She decided she was not ready for the slide. She decided to put her hand on the side instead of the rung. She was actively problem solving. Experiences like these foster independence and self reliance. Maybe next time she is faced with a challenge she will work it out herself, not needing someone to come rescue her. She is not helpless and she can test the limits of her environment without fearing there is a dangerous situation that she can't handle lurking around every corner. Yet, she also learned that, if asked, Mom will help. Mom will not do it for me, but Mom will stay there and work through it with me and keep me safe. We built trust today.
There were also many more elemental things she learned in this experience. She gained gross motor skills, body control, and muscle strength that she would not have been gained if I had whisked her off the top of the ladder and set her safely on the ground. She gained language skills just by listening to all I said to her, as well as her attempts to communicate to me. And she learned much more that I probably am completely unaware of, physics, balance, more of a relationship with her brother . . .
What would she have gained if I had plucked her off the top, kissed her on the head and put her down on the ground? That when I am uncomfortable or unsure, Mommy will save me. Well, what is wrong with that, you might wonder, isn't that a good feeling? It is. But isn’t it better to know that Mommy is there for you, but you can save yourself?
If I am always rushing to solve my toddler’s problems, then when do I decide to stop solving problems for her? When do I change the rules and tell her it’s time to start developing her own problem solving skills? I’d rather her start develop her problem-solving skills right away -- and for her to gain the self-confidence that results from overcoming her challenges. If I knew I could fix my children’s problems their whole lives long, I probably would. But since I can’t, I let my toddler struggle. I’m there for her, not to solve her problems, but to watch and support her failures, and her triumphs.