At a rock-climbing wall, a mother understands: Sometimes a little slack is all that a child needs.
As a very young child my daughter Phoebe would yell "I'm OK!" whenever she'd crashed or fallen but didn't want to stop her game. "I'm OK!" she yelled at age 4 when she got on her sister's two-wheeled bike but couldn't stop herself without careening into something. "I'm OK!" she said at 3 when, hopping up and down a set of cement steps in the park, she tumbled. Looking down at the happy, scrappy, scraped young child splayed at her feet, an astonished passerby said, "I wouldn't be."
She climbed into the kitchen sink before she could walk, pitched herself out of her crib before she could talk. But once she could talk she said, time after time, "I'm OK!"
From me there's been a lot of "cut it out, be careful, get down from there, put your helmet on!" I never thought I would have to drag that girl, at age 6, to an indoor rock-climbing gym.
The Maine Rock Gym is no Chamonix, but it is designed to hone real mountaineering skills. The walls rise up 35 feet, some angled away, some precipitous, some with muffin-top cliffs. Toeholds of various sizes and colors resemble candy placed to lure a creature up. With our harnesses on, my husband and I and two of our three daughters looked like a family of well-equipped handymen. But Phoebe hung back, fingers in her mouth.
"I don't want to," she said.
Let's be clear. Stubbornness – let's call it determination, stick-to-itiveness, tenacity – is what sent Phoebe crashing, on purpose, into our neighbors' bushes in lieu of using brakes her first day on a bike. To me, the climbing gym was an opportunity to literally harness Phoebe's desire to go high and soar. I begged, I explained, I even tried to bribe her, pointing to the M&M machine near the gym desk. "Uh-uh," she said, looking down.
I'm stubborn, too, and I could have eventually driven her, uh, up the wall. But I had to learn to belay – to hold and work the rope. In rock climbing, the system of rope, carabiner, and belay device allows a belayer to hold a climber's weight without much effort, to arrest a free fall, and thus possibly to save a life. It was heartbreaking to leave Phoebe standing there, but all I could do was kiss her and tell her she was free to change her mind.