At 22-months-old, Annibelle took a ride on the flying trapeze. She swung, 25 feet above the ground. All by herself. Happy as you please.
It was a little bit crazy.
But please, don't blame us. We're not bad parents. We even tried to talk her out of it. We didn't think she could do it, and we told her so. Repeatedly.
But she just wouldn't listen.
"Up! Up!" Annibelle said, pointing to the trapeze where our friend had just performed.
"No, no, little girl, you're not even 2-years-old!"
"I fly! I fly!" she insisted, with a very determined look upon her face.
"No, no, dear daughter, it's not really safe!"
We went on like this, for about five minutes, until an instructor came over, and explained that she really could do it if she wanted. It turns out that they had a baby harness and safety lines, there was no way she could fall, and her arm strength could easily support her weight.
So we thought, "Hey -- maybe we're wrong? Maybe she can do it? And it is actually safe."
We helped the instructors strap her in. They carried her up the tower (on lines at all times). She hung on to the bar. They let her go. And she flew.
We were as shocked as anyone by what she'd done. But as we thought about it, my wife Nicole and I realized what a profound parenting lesson we'd just been given. In less than 30 minutes, our daughter had taught us the essential keys for how to let go of our own limitations, and help our children be all that they can be.
Five Keys for How to Help Your Children Fly (Courtesy of Annibelle Whetten)
1. Listen for their truth. Children are both wise and foolish. There are times when they speak deep truth and know exactly what's right for them. And there are times when they're tired, immature, silly, or out of control. Our job is to help them determine which is which. The first couple times Annibelle said "Up! Up! I fly, I fly!" we were amused. When she kept at it, we became curious. Could she really do it? We didn't think so -- she was only 22-months-old after all -- but there was something in her clarity and commitment that made us perk up and wonder.
2. Make it safe to fail. Instead of trying to boost children's esteem by helping them always be a winner, make it safe for them to fail. Let them take risks. Help them go into their fears. As you do so, make things safe, both physically and emotionally. With Annibelle, we wouldn't have let her try this if we didn't know the people running the circus. But we trusted them, their safety equipment, and their experience. We trusted that even if she failed, she wouldn't fall.
3. Own your projections. In our desire to protect our children, we often project our personal fears and issues on them. We unconsciously see them through the eyes of our own limitations. When we do this, we often discourage them from trying the things that scare us, or that we weren't good at, instead of seeing them clearly for who they really are. With Annibelle's adventure, we were clearly more scared than she was, and we clearly had many more doubts. She didn't worry or second guess herself. She just went for what she wanted. She took a risk. And she flew.
4. Provide support. It's important to cheer your children on. Help them follow their passions. Encourage them to learn and grow. At the same time, minimize the expectations you place on them. Create opportunities instead of demands. Accept them as they are, while helping them improve. With a 22-month-old and a flying trapeze, it was easy for us to avoid putting expectations on her. (I'm sure it will be tougher for me when she starts dating, in about 25 years or so.) That said, once she started in, we cheered her on, every step of the way.
5. Let yourself be surprised. Every new generation stands on the shoulders of the last. Our children are very different than we were. They're here to learn. And they're also here to teach. They have capacities and possibilities that are larger than we can imagine. So, help them follow their hearts and spread their wings. Help them soar.
And prepare to be shocked at what they manage to do.