Learning from the past: Our children are more capable than we think

They don’t make ‘em like they used to.  Or maybe they do and we just aren’t letting them be all they can be.  

My grandfather, Dan Howe, passed away in February at the age of 97, and this month a dear family friend, Jim Ramey, passed away at the age of 98.  Both of these men were remarkable and their passings got me thinking about how they became such special people.  Please indulge me and let me tell you a couple stories about these guys, and I will get to my point about how having known them affects the way I parent my children.
Jim Ramey was born in South Dakota in 1917 and lived there his entire life.  When he was 14 years old, in 1931, during the great depression, the people of Wanblee, SD gathered every spare penny they could and arranged to purchase some cattle in Texas.  They gave all of their hard earned money to Jim -- again I stress, he was 14 years old -- and he rode his horse from South Dakota to Texas to pay for and take possession of the cattle.  He loaded the cattle on a train and took them to Nebraska, as far as the railroad could take him.  There he hired a crew of cowboys to help him drive more than 1000 head of cattle from Nebraska to Wanblee, with him as trail boss.  Fourteen year-old Jim Ramey saved the people of Wanblee from economic ruin.  

Dan Howe was born in Kansas in 1918 on his family’s farm.  When he was 16 years old, in 1934, his father fell gravely ill.  Dan’s older siblings had already left home, so at 16 he took over running the family farm, and his mom helped as much as possible while tending to his ill father.  Successfully managing a small family farm in 1934 was difficult at best and took a tremendous amount of work.  Despite that he still managed to graduate high school after his father passed away and attended Kansas State University on a basketball scholarship.  

These stories can’t help but highlight how responsible and capable these boys were at such a young age.  Now, I know we live in a different time.  I am in no way suggesting that I will send any of my children across the country on horseback.  But I am often -- very often -- faced with deciding if my children are ready;  ready for the big slide, ready to bike around the block alone, ready for a phone, ready to go on a date (this question hasn’t come up yet, but it will!)  And it can be a fine line.  

First and foremost it is my job to keep them safe.  But what is safe is subject to interpretation.  We may all agree that the one year-old shouldn’t play with the kitchen knives, but we might be less likely to agree on whether it is safe for the ten year-old and her best friend to go off to their favorite store in the mall by themselves.  How do we know if they are ready?  I think to some degree we can still use the same ideas that Magda Gerber had for babies when we parent our older children.  Sensitive observation will let us know.  One child might be very cautious and disciplined while another is wistful and often lost in his own thoughts, which child will you let ride their bike around the block first?  Only by sensitively observing our children, even when they are older, will we know if they are ready.  

What do we let our children do and when are the very personal choices that make up a large portion of parenting.  The answer is really, it depends.  It depends on the child, it depends on the situation, it depends on the risk vs. reward, etc...  These two men in my life remind me that my children are probably more capable then I think, and perhaps I need to examine my reasons for hesitation.  The feeling I had when I let my daughter walk the dogs around the block by herself for the first time was eerily similar to the feeling I get standing near my toddler while she navigates up the big play structure at the park, but I believe that their independent exploration is good for both of them.    

I know from hearing my grandfather and Jim tell these stories over the years that they both took great pride in how they faced their challenges.  These times in their lives were defining moments for both of them, helping to make them the men I so admired and loved.   I just want to be careful not to protect away my children’s chances of having moments like these of their own.