The Joy of Playing It Un-Safe: Letting the Kids Fail

One brave woman on the rewards of breaking out of your comfort zone

By Judith Newman
Photograph: Phil Toledano

That’s what I fear, really, when I watch my children choose comfort and safety over a little bit of pain, trouble and uncertainty. I don’t want to think of Gus sleeping in the closet during thunderstorms when he’s 20 so that he doesn’t have to look at the lightning. And I keep seeing Henry, who doesn’t have Gus’s very real challenges, being less than he could be because for all his bravado, he’s scared of trying anything he’s not sure he’ll excel at. For example, uncommonly good at math and deeply, crazily fond of money, he boasts that when he starts investing, he will be the first to discover the next Apple or Google. Yet when his grandmother gave him $500 for his birthday and told him to go wild, he literally put the cash under the mattress—where, apparently, he had also been stashing his allowance for the past year. Nothing I could do would convince him to risk it. “But . . . what if I need it?” he cried.

That’s what kills me. New and scary are synonymous for me, too. I am terrified of change, terrified of risking my neck—and I am the worse for it. I don’t want that for them.

Can they avoid my fate? I don’t know. But I live in hope.

For a half hour I watch Henry tell the kids playing King that he’s going to beat them all, that he will be King . . . as soon as he goes home and gets kneepads and a helmet. The guy can bluff, I’ll say that for him; really, I might as well start saving up for law school now.

Gus, though, has a different approach. For a half hour he watches from the sidelines. He doesn’t say a word. He waits until there is one kid left—the tallest, oldest boy, 14-year-old David, who’s never been knocked down once and has managed to shove all the younger boys off the ledge and keep them off. David is about to declare himself the winner. Then, to my amazement, my little guy scrambles up on the ledge and dives for David’s legs. David keels over like a redwood. Somehow Gussie manages not to fall over into the bushes as well.

Gus, all 45 pounds of him, raises his arms in victory. “I am the King!” he cries. “And my mama,” he says, pointing theatrically at me, “is the Queen!”
And you know, right at that moment, I am.

 

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First Published September 14, 2011

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