My son was, at least for a while, the youngest zip liner in Nicaragua. He was two years old at the time and our family had arranged to go zip lining as part of our vacation. My son and I were to keep our feet on the ground while the others zipped overhead. But that plan failed to take into account completely the temperament of my toddler.
My son would have none of staying on the ground. His cherubic cuteness and fascination with the equipment led quickly to the zip line staff gearing him up, just for the fun of it. Sweet as he looked, I felt an ominous lump in my gut. I knew intuitively that gear would not be coming off, not without a ride through the canopy for my little monkey. With a tantrum that rivalled a big ape beating his chest, he eventually wore the zip line staff down. They offered to strap him safely onto one of their zip lining experts and bring him along for the ride. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
You would think that zip lining through the trees like Curious George would be deeply satisfying to a two-year-old, but it was not. Instead, my son was outraged. He was absolutely incensed that he could not zip freely along the line on his own, like the rest of us, and instead, had to be strapped to a professional. “ON ME OWN, BY ME SELF!!!!!!!” he shrieked furiously as he bolted like lightning from one treetop to the next.
In that moment, I knew beyond a doubt that my son has a pioneer spirit: not only is he hard-wired to go where no one has gone before, but he intends to get there alone.
At our local public school, the teachers took a day to convene and practise new methods of teaching mathematics to children. They brought in some students who enjoy math to act as guinea pigs and my son was one of them. He thoroughly enjoyed the exercise, but I wasn’t sure he had grasped its point. When I asked him, afterward, what the teachers had been doing and why he had joined them, his response was simple and self-assured. “The teachers ran out of ideas for what to do with the numbers,” he explained soberly, “so they asked me to come in and show them a few things.”
I had to stifle a laugh. I instantly pictured a scene of distraught teachers gathered desperately around the staff room table, hair dishevelled and chalk dust staining their clothes. “I don’t know what else we can do,” moaned one teacher to the others, throwing up his hands in anguish. “We’ve added, we’ve subtracted, we’ve multiplied, we’ve divided … we need to bring in the kid!”
How to parent that kind of self-confidence — and nurture it rather than quash it — is a question I visit regularly. Even mundane music practice can turn the usual rules of parenting upside down. My son plays the violin and one of the first songs his instructor asked him to learn was Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. He played a rather curious rendition of it for me on his own after the lesson and I had to tell him kindly, “Sweetheart, that was a beautiful song you just played, but it wasn’t Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Please try again.”
“Yes it was Twinkle Twinkle.”
“Honey, Twinkle Twinkle is a thing. It’s a phenomenon. It’s a very old song that has been played for a very long time by a lot of different people all around the world, in the very same way. What you played just now was extremely pretty. But it simply wasn’t Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
“Yes it was.”
I decided to get more direct. “Buddy, no one else has ever played Twinkle Twinkle that way.”
“They will. After they’ve heard me.”
With that, I surrendered the argument. Who was I to teach my child that he could only do things exactly as people before him had done? My heart wasn’t in it. These days, I try mainly to learn from his approach: when I catch myself doing something just because it has been done before or is what people expect me to do, I think about doing it differently.
I do ponder, as a mom, how much resistance my son’s pioneering will encounter in life. Already, I’ve received a talking-to from his teacher about his refusal to print between the lines. What’s next, I wonder: suspension from drama class when he defies the laws of mime and breaks out of the invisible box?
We haven’t zip lined since that early adventure, but recently, did find ourselves at a trampoline park. A bored teenager read us the rules after we paid our admission and put on our trampoline socks. Towards the end of her presentation, she recounted blandly, “Don’t do anything you haven’t done before. Don’t do anything you don’t already know you can do.”
“Well, there goes human evolution,” I quipped under my breath. But my son hadn’t heard me. After a polite smile to acknowledge her speech, he had already bounded off to attempt his first-ever double Axel.
Babble by Anita Odessa