Recently, I read an NPR article about the judgements parents place on the perceived risks of other people’s children. Interestingly, situations were perceived as a higher threat to the child if the parent observing had a negative moral judgment about the other parent. The same exact situation was felt to be safe if the reason behind it aligned with the observer’s sense of right and wrong.
We are constantly evaluating every situation we find ourselves in with children as to whether it is safe or a threat. Some parents allow their children to climb trees totally unhindered. Others set boundaries, like only climbing as high as a certain branch.
How many of these imposed boundaries are based on our own fear? I once found myself in a situation with a six year old girl in a park. There was a giant rectangular fountain, with a ledge all the way around. She had jumped up onto it (it was about 3 feet high), and was walking along the perimeter of the fountain that way. It was making me nervous, though I didn’t consciously notice. She could have fallen into the water, or off the edge and onto the concrete. I looked at her and told her it wasn’t safe and I wanted her to get down. She listened, but she grabbed my hand and said, “Leslie, when you don’t let me do things like that, I feel like you don’t believe I can. I was fine up there. I can balance. It’s easy for me.” I was shocked because she totally called me out. It was my fear which I was asking her to soothe. The situation, in reality, wasn’t unsafe, for her. She was very capable of such feats. I knew her very well, and knew her strengths and abilities. I told her she was right. That I was uncomfortable and it had nothing to do with trusting whether she was capable. I invited her to continue walking on the ledge. She did, happily so. And no disaster struck. But I never ever forgot this moment.
Ever since then, when I feel the impulse to ask a child to stop doing something, I check in. Am I uncomfortable? Am I afraid? Is there actually a problem? Is it really a risk? What is this child capable of?
Now I’m that grown-up who let’s a 5 year old climb a 20 foot tree. I let children test their own strengths and boundaries. I encourage them to listen to their bodies and know when to stop. I ask them to set their own limits.
We can hold this kind of space of trust in many ways. Luckily, yoga is all about trusting your body and challenging yourself and finding your limits! In a kids’ yoga class, we can invite the children to do more challenging poses. We can listen when they speak instead of immediately asking them to be quiet. We can trust that they have something important to say. We can encourage them to listen to their bodies. If they don’t want to dance when everyone is dancing, how can we honor that? How can we help them trust their own bodily wisdom?
Yesterday in class, a child got a bloody nose from falling out of crow. The whole class moaned and groaned because they all know the rule, “Don’t look down or you’ll get a bloody nose.” But it’s that kind of risk that makes it all worthwhile. The child rocked the pose after that. Instead of proclaiming that we will never do crow pose again, we just trust. We fall. We get back up. Children need a chance to do this, too. If we trust them, they’ll know it’s okay to trust themselves.