How do you walk with a child? It’s easy at the start. At the beginning, you share every step. Whether held in arms, swaddled across the chest, strapped to one’s back, or pushed in a stroller, we walk with our babies. Or at least they walk with us, captive to our tempo. If we’re paying attention, we modulate our tempo to the child’s needs, speeding up for the baby who cries when the rate drops or slowing and swaying as a small one falls asleep.
In retrospect, that was the easy part of the path. No, I’d not go by to those sleepless nights and endless days. I’ll admit I prefer the stages after that, the ones filled with questions and comments, sleep and independent trips to restrooms. But walking together is far less clear with older children. They run ahead, scaring us when they’re out of sight or too close to the road, the water, the dog, or the edge of the climber. They lag behind, stopping to watch an ant cross the path or to inquire about the same rock that’s been discussed on every walk for the past three months, enjoying the delight of the new as well as the repetition of the old. They never, it seems, match our tempo again.
Whether a homeschooling parent or not, the decision of how to walk with one’s child is not easy, nor is the execution of that plan. But educating at home adds many miles to the steps taken together, and those miles can be frightening, painful, joyful, or just rather mundane. As my children grow, I’m less certain about how to walk this path with them. It’s all well and good to say just walk by their side, but in reality, that’s not always easy or even desirable. Children need guidance. They need us not as mere followers to their whims but as steady guides. But how to guide?
I don’t know.
I know that sometimes, I feel like I’m holding a child back. Perhaps I’m asking one to practice a skill that I’d have needed more repetition to learn thoroughly, but he needs very little. It’s hard to put aside my own experience at those points — if it worked for me, it must be what will work for him. Written out, the fallacy of that is obvious. In real time, it’s not that simple. My children learn amazingly fast — except when they don’t. It’s whiplash-inducing at times, as they fly forward through curriculum only to screech to a halt over something I’d never suspected would serve as their brick wall. Yesterday, my younger’s wall was dictionary key words. After discussions on the parallels between Lincoln and Obama and the universality of gravity, let’s just say this came as a bit of a surprise. It’s hard to know what subjects require repetition and what ones require only the slightest exposure.
Other times, a child tells me he’s ready for something — something that leaves me a bit anxious — and my first instinct is to reach out and hold him back. At two, that might have been a solo trip down the biggest slide. At fifteen, it seems to be Driver’s Ed. I wasn’t ready for the first, and I’m no where nearly ready for the second. Part of me wants to grab his hand and slow the pace to one that doesn’t scare me so much. And sometimes, that’s the best choice. As an adult, I have insight into actions and consequences my children just don’t have. Keeping them safe is my job. But letting them try what they might fail — even what might hurt them — is how they grow.
So follow the child, one says. Just watch the child. It’s not that simple. At times, kids need a prod — they need to step up the pace to get to where they need to go. This can be unpleasant. It may be the tightening of rules to assure school work is accomplished. It may be invoking earlier-than-desired waking times for kids who would spend all their days languishing in bed. As a child who was highly internally driven (and loved to please — yes, that has its own risks), taking what feel like mean and even Draconian measures to urge my own child into better organizational and life skills causes massive dissonance. Pushing, pulling, urging, coaxing, bribing, and rewarding. It all feels bad at times for a mom who just wants everyone to do the right thing because it is, after all, right.
But these are children whom I want to have choices. I want them to reach adulthood with options and the skills to exercise those options. Like it or not, that sometimes means part of our path is unpleasant for each of us. Over the past few years, I’ve had to do plenty of prodding to move my older to better habits that will serve him well later. I’ve felt torn the entire time. But here and there (and quite often lately), I’ve seen the proverbial light go on. Alarms are set. Calendars maintained. Organization self-imposed. And he’s happier. So am I.
I doubt this walk will be easier over the next few years. The push they feel to grow up tomorrow (often coexisting with the tug backwards they feel to stay dependent and young), will undoubtedly challenge my ability to walk with them as I’d like. I suppose they gradually will take their own path — in ways they’ve begun that years ago — and my job is to let them do that, hoping I’ve offered them the skills they need to walk that way with wisdom and integrity and being available when they want to walk together for bits. It’s a bit frightening, I’ll admit, while also being exhilarating. Sharing their paths with all the complications that doing so includes is simply part of my journey, and I’d not trade this walk for any other.