Be careful

by Jennifer on February 18, 2009

I hear the words rise easy and worn to my lips. Be careful.

My boy climbs the sloped trunk of the tree in front of our house.  A monkey, a scout, Tarzan. My girl follows, more timid, a stuffed unicorn tucked under one arm, and I say it again, louder. Be careful. Up the trunk, she eases herself, also part monkey. Ballerina, trapeze artist. Bird, perched.

That they’re climbing the tree at all – that they found the nerve – warms me from toes to heart, even as I measure the distance between branch and ground. From ground to the top of their heads, to elbows and knees and necks. My mind gathers up the faintest rules of physics that cling like lint somewhere inside it and scoops them into a inadequate bit of fluff. How hard would they fall, if they lost their balance? Where would they bruise? Or worse, break?

And then reason gives me a nudge. Remember, it tells me, you climbed a tree forty, maybe fifty, feet tall when you were their size. You climbed to the thinnest, highest branches and worked your toe into the V of two twigs and held on in the sway of wind. Just so you could have that view. Just because you could.

Think of that, it tells me, and those five feet shrink back to what they are. Not that far.

A week or two later. My daughter gets home from school every day and heads for the tree, with a book or some stuffed animals. Her brother, too, but with the goal of dropping things from perch to ground to watch them break apart.

One day,  I hear him crying and rush toward the sound. “I fell out” (gulp) “of the tree!”  He is shaken and a little scuffed. I settle him onto the sofa and start checking him over, rib by rib (he landed face down and flat out). I make him breathe in and out, and I feel every rib and arm and leg bone, until I’m sure nothing is broken.

The words – warning, habit, instinct, prayer – come back to me, an echo now. Be careful. As in,  how many times did I tell you. I try not to say it, but the words won’t be stopped.

Later, he tells me, “I don’t want to climb the tree again.”

And then I do what is counterintuitive, what goes against every instinct, what has to be wrung from my heart. I tell him that in another day or maybe two, I think he will want to climb the tree again. I say it, out loud, my voice making assurances my heart doesn’t buy. “Better to leave it alone,” I want to say. “This was enough. Lesson learned.”

But I don’t. He finds his nerve the next day and crawls up the trunk. I watch from twenty feet away, far enough that he can’t hear me when I whisper the words.

Be careful.

And I check myself this time. Because I know for sure, watching him climb, holding my breath, mapping out where the small scratches still show somewhere underneath his shirt – that something in me is, and will stay, broken.

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

the mama bird diaries February 18, 2009 at 6:38 am

I wish I had half the courage of my kids. We adults have learned to be too careful.

Emily R February 18, 2009 at 7:04 am

my husband and i disagree about tree climbing. i encourage it, he thinks it oughtn’t be allowed. of course, here there are no climbable trees…

apathy lounge February 18, 2009 at 7:36 am

There you are: on the crumbly parental precipice between keeping your kids safe and putting fear where there isn’t any. I never know what is right either. You’ve described this feeling well.

Madge February 18, 2009 at 7:50 am

this made me cry.

jenrantsraves February 18, 2009 at 7:54 am

I was watching a little girl running around yesterday, her hair blowing behind her, a huge smile on her lips, when I heard her mom yell, “No running! You’re going to get hurt!” Seconds later, she was off running again, and sure enough, fell down. Her mom was there , “I told you! No more running!” It made me sad. Wasn’t the joy she felt running worth the risk, I thought. It is a constant battle as a parent, protecting them, yet encouraging their sense of adventure and fearlessness.

slouching mom February 18, 2009 at 8:40 am

Yeah. Sigh. As parents we have pieces of our hearts wandering around out there in the big, bad world. So hard to let them go.

You did good.

Daryl February 18, 2009 at 8:41 am

Maybe someday those ‘small scratches’ that linger on you will go … I hope so.

Green Girl February 18, 2009 at 8:57 am

Ah, the flux of caution and risking–it never really ends, does it?

fancy feet February 18, 2009 at 9:35 am

so, so beautiful.

jessica February 18, 2009 at 10:08 am

Oh do I love this. I saw a little girl almost drown. It was horrible but I told her mom she needed to get right back into the pool and to play it all down b/c otherwise she might have a fear of water forever.

My mom raised me with enormous fear and I refuse to do that with my kid. Good for you.

Chris February 18, 2009 at 1:04 pm

You wrote that beautifully. Tender story, told so well.

we_be_toys February 18, 2009 at 3:24 pm

It’s so hard to stand by sometimes, isn’t it? You know it’s the best thing to do, but god, is it hard to not hover when you’re sure they’re going to plummet from a tree, or fall in a deep part of the creek, or crack their brother’s head open with that massive stick.

I’m really, REALLY proud of you for not giving in to the fear, for encouraging him to fly again. I know that had to be incredibly hard.

Louise February 18, 2009 at 4:47 pm

I should probably give more warnings, but I think I still feel somewhat the invincibility of youth. Your heart would be in your throat at our “climbing tree.” But I think also you would love so much seeing your kids doing one of the very things you loved so much as a child.

My warnings of caution and danger are related to people more than activities. People including their friends. My children have been hurt more by other children than by anything else. That’s where my heart breaks. I try to toughen them up, but it is difficult.

V-Grrrl February 18, 2009 at 5:10 pm

A universal experience, and as Apathy Lounge noted, that space we’re forced to occupy between safety and risk, between protection and independence.

I was a tree climber and a tree fort builder from the time I was small. We didn’t have a swing set or monkey bars, we had trees–apple trees for the younger ones, pines when you wanted great height (and didn’t weight too much) and maples when you were tall enough and strong enough to swing yourself up on the branches.

My big injuries came from the tree forts, the most memorable one being a malfunctioning “elevator” my brother devised that left me with skinned cheeks and so much scab on my face I couldn’t smile because it was all so stiff….

david mcmahon February 18, 2009 at 5:46 pm

The heart of every parent beats with yours, Jennifer.

Heather February 18, 2009 at 7:18 pm

This is breathtaking. I even annoy myself with the constant be careful reminders.

Suzanne February 18, 2009 at 7:18 pm

Your essay took me right back to my childhood and the big bad ficus tree in the front yard. My brother would climb it and I would follow him, desperate to establish my own place to sit among the branches to survey the sky.

Just wait until your little ones find out how much fun it is to hang upside down from the branches and then do a back flip off of them.

BTW, I’m digging your glasses!

San Diego Momma February 18, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Oh yes. Yes, I get this.
(And I Blipped ya.)

flutter February 18, 2009 at 10:35 pm

they are beautiful reminders of how to be. aren’t they?

Sarcastic Mom February 18, 2009 at 10:36 pm

This made me tear up. I have a 2 year old, and already, already.
I have felt the feeling of holding him tightly to my chest within my heart as my arms open wide to let him go.

Great post.

anymommy February 18, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Perfectly captured, that fear that we hold so tightly, but we don’t want them to feel, ever. Perfect.

Hilary February 19, 2009 at 7:48 am

This is such a tear-evoking post. You’ve described so perfectly the conflict every loving parent feels. Our hearts are in their hands, when they’re not in our throats. Beautifully expressed. You’re a wonderful mother.

Indigo February 19, 2009 at 11:40 am

And it doesn’t get any better, even when they’re older…I still have those moments of worry/fear with my daughter and she’s a married woman with a home of her own. I don’t want her to fall…

I think that is the task of every parent, to hold their breathe and whisper be careful, knowing they have to fall on occasion to learn. (Hugs)Indigo

Jessica (from It's my life...) February 19, 2009 at 11:54 am

That was beautifully written. Thank you for sharing with us.
My kids aren’t of tree climbing age yet, but I fight that same batter within myself whenever they climb onto a chair or toy bin. I watch with eagle eyes, but I let them explore and grow their self confidence.
This being a parent thing isn’t for the faint of heart!

Kellie February 19, 2009 at 11:58 am

but the trees when we were young (mid-west girl) were OAK and HUGE. These trees and little and loose branches when a strong breeze comes in. I am just grateful that they come in from climbing in one piece!

Kimberly February 19, 2009 at 6:22 pm

I love this so much and I have the same struggles. I teeter constantly between wanting to hold them close, protect them and keep them safe and wanting to let them run, jump, fly and, yes, crash. Because that is what makes living so worthwhile.

Beautifully written.

Jenn @ Juggling Life February 19, 2009 at 8:49 pm

I try really hard not to say be careful unless it’s really necessary–and it’s usually not. Beautiful writing as usual.

Jeni Hill Ertmer February 20, 2009 at 1:06 am

A great post! Truly deserving of David’s honoring by awarding it Post of the Day!
When my oldest grandson (now 11) was a toddler and for a long time during his younger years, his mother was adamant about how he played, lest he get dirty. His father was always telling him “Don’t run!” or don’t do this or that because you’ll get hurt. All proper admonitions to be sure, but at the same time, I think both the parents forgot something important in all those constant warnings too -run, but yes, do be careful. Play, get dirty, downright grubby -that too is a very important aspect in childhood. I think my grandson was about 6-7 years old the first time my younger daughter (his aunt) and I ever saw him “dirty” and the look on his face was one I will never forget as he looked like the happiest little boy ever! I know his mother was absolutely cringing at the sight but she did manage, somehow, to keep quiet and not scold him. Maybe she finally remembered how happy she was as a child, allowed to run, jump, play, make mud pies, climb trees and much more! All these things are very important tools for a child to learn and develop properly -even if they do have the rest of us a bit of a nervous wreck sometimes.

Deb February 20, 2009 at 6:04 am

Hi ~ Inspirational. thoughtful post and oh, so true! Huge pats on the back and hugs to all of you – he was brave to climb that tree again and you were brave to allow him. Congrats on POTD over at Authorblog. Celebrate the Day !

Cath February 20, 2009 at 7:15 am

Oh Lord – Jennifer you write so beautifully. I was there!!

I have missed visiting you. 🙂

Craig Glenn February 20, 2009 at 8:59 am

I am with you one hundred percent. I was much tougher and much more coordinated in my youth than any of me 5 kids could ever hope to be, or was that just the ignorance of youth. If I had know what it was doing to my parents I am sure I would have played it up even more. My parents earned every “non-dark” hair from my brother and I.

Thanks for this post and reminding us of the special bond and wisdom of a mother. This is the great paradox of all parents, to protect, yet send him back to the tree.

Congrats for Post of the Day. Well desirved.


Gaelyn February 20, 2009 at 10:21 pm

Wonderful memory. Glad you could hold your tongue and remember how fun it is to climb trees, and take chances. And how we learn from these experiences as both children and adults.

Donna Marino February 25, 2009 at 2:57 am

I enjoyed reading this a great deal. Well penned.

JCK February 26, 2009 at 2:21 pm

You’re a wonderful mom, Jennifer!

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