Climbing: An Opportunity to Trust

When it comes to climbing, I trust my daughter and follow her lead.

My daughter is a climber. I ask if she needs help. She is honest and accurate about when help is needed. I don’t push her if she doesn’t seem to want pushing. I might encourage if she seems frustrated but capable.

I have the rule that she has to climb up herself.

I do not help her get to high places that she could not get to herself. This gives me the confidence to know we are generally in the realm of her capabilities at a given time.

One time, I faced the most difficult challenge to my trust ever: the merry-go-round deluxe.

One park we go to has a merry-go-round with a rope “tree” on top of it. So it’s just like a rope ladder/net that you usually see at playgrounds, but it is shaped like a tree that goes up steeply to a point. The rope structure is maybe 10 feet with five levels. That is 10 ft from the base you sit on, so it’s about 15 ft tall at the top.

My daughter was just under two years old and three feet tall.

She climbs up two levels and looks at me to see if it is ok to keep climbing. I can tell she is into it and has the energy and emotional state to do it. I encourage her natural desire to try. Of course, my heart is jumping because this thing goes way up higher than she has ever been.

I secretly try to convince myself that she doesn’t want to climb all the way up.

I let her climb one, two levels independently but with my hands ready. The third level…alright, now we’re near my head. She’s never chosen to go beyond this level. She looks at me again and says, “I want to climb up.”

BREATHE…“Yes, you can climb up.”

She does so easily, with good balance and focus. Now she is well above my head. I can barely reach her. She looks at me one more time, wants to climb to the top level.

I can barely….BREATHE…..

I want to say something to stop her, but she feels ready. I put my fear aside and put my hands as close as I can, still feet away because she’s so high. It takes some doing for her to get up to the next level. I can tell there is a bit of doubt in there, but there is also determination. I keep my mouth shut in case I break her confidence. She pulls herself together and all of a sudden…

She climbs up! Huge, triumphant grin on her face. The “I did it” look.

I also smiled at her mission accomplished, but I couldn’t help myself letting her know she could come back down if she wanted (hint hint). I was kind of bummed I let my trust waver, though, because when I made myself visually check in with her what I saw was that she knew she had gone to her limit and was completely ready to come back down. She scrambled down, and we had a little huggy, close moment before she ran off to play as if nothing momentous had just happened.

While my daughter conquered this towering structure, I conquered my fear in the name of trust.

That was the farthest I have ever been pushed. It was rough. I know everyone was watching us to see how things would go, but I had to continue to trust my daughter, even against my own judgment. I can imagine how others feel fearful with lower, less complicated structures if they aren’t used to letting their children climb or if their children don’t exhibit the readiness and body awareness but are placed up high.

The comic relief came in just after the action sequence.

As my heart starts beating more regularly, I found myself on the toddler side where there was one of those rung ladders. In fact, it is a short, vertical version of the rung ladder the 17 month old expertly climbs in this video. I was talking with my friend and saw that my daughter had walked over to the ladder, about 6 feet away, and wanted to climb.

We had gone through our trust building around that task the last time we came, so I knew she could do it and left her alone. I did check to see that she was capable and confident in that moment and saw she was being careful. I kept talking to my friend about how I felt terrified when she ran away for the first time that morning. I turned my head to check on her while telling my friend “she’s never done that before!”

I then saw that the dad who had been watching her anxiously this whole time and staring incredulously at me expecting me to help. He now had his hands fluttering all close under her and said in response “I know! They can fall from this thing!” He said this with a tone that was a “don’t you know they can fall, o’ mom who is uncaring and inattentive?!” He thought I was telling him that she’s never climbed that ladder thing before and was appalled that I was letting her climb independently.

And I laughed! Because I just had my heart wrenched out of my chest from that merry-go-round tree thing and this felt like NOTHING! 

He didn’t know what he had stumbled on, though, as I dismissively told him “Oh, she’s done that before just fine.” Soon after, his son tried climbing the same ladder and clearly could have (and was), but the dad told him not to because it was dangerous. That felt sad. Even if the dad did not let him climb all the way, a rung or two would have been fun learning for him.

I then realized that letting children climb is about more than fun or safety. 

This climbing experience at the park was a challenging exercise in trust. When children are climbing, they are making choices for themselves and living independently (if we let them). We demonstrate our loving trust in them when we let them play freely and rejoice with them in their efforts.

Children use our trust in them as a base from which to launch themselves toward the peaks of their imaginations.

My daughter imagined herself at the top of the tree, and then she set about making it so. It was difficult to trust my child in those moments at the top. I so easily could have plucked her off the structure or discouraged her from climbing. I believe I would be communicating a distrust in her, however, and I don’t want her to be limited by my fears. If I can’t let her climb as a toddler, how will my fear and distrust limit her when she is a teenager? How will my distrust affect our relationship or her sense of self? Whatever it is, the outcome of parenting out of fear is not desirable.

Climbing, then, is seen for what it is: an opportunity to trust and build a strong relationship for the future. 



8 responses to this post.

  1. Reading your post I too had to remind myself to breathe!

    What a brave, thoughtful mama and fortunate child to be trusted, understood and safely allowed the freedom to really climb. I wish many more parents understood how their fears limit children. Asking why those fears exist might be a good place to start.

    Many thanks for listing my blog, “Play and Trust”, as a resource. We are right on the very same wavelength!

    Susan Caruso, Director
    Sunflower Creative Arts


  2. I think you are an amazingly gifted educator and parent. Yet I recognize in myself the fearful parenting you discourage. There is a spectrum of trust adults have (in both the universe and in their children), and a subjective view of the cost/benefit of that decision. The risk of possible injury of a child is sometimes too great.

    I remember my brother’s first daughter, when just under two years old, was climbing their front slate steps. Up and down she teetered, trying to master the act. Over and over again, my heart jumped, worrying with every step that she might fall and crack her head open. I hadn’t had children of my own at the time, and I couldn’t understand the nonchalance of my brother as he stayed away and let her gain her skill and confidence independently. I asked him “Aren’t you afraid of her falling, maybe even cutting her head open?” He dismissed me. “She’s not going to die.. but she will learn to climb the steps.” I couldn’t believe him. Clearly, 11 some years later, I still remember this day. But I also know that I can’t be that parent. The possible helplessness of seeing my daughter or son in pain is too great a cost. Like all children, they are my heart living outside my own body. Is there a third choice between not letting them, or letting them try independently?

    As you mentioned, it relies heavily on knowing your child. I would stay next to them, letting them try, but keeping them from getting severely maimed. Reminding them of the danger, but saying you can do it. Today, I did that while my son road his bike in the street while I walked the dog. I reminded him to look and listen for cars, but to try. I asked him to stay within eye shot, but told him to go. Will I let him ride his bike around the neighborhood like some other parents do? No. Not alone. He’s 6, and often forgets the rules of safety. But will I tell him to stay out of the street completely? No. The street is far more fun then the sidewalk.

    Maybe just as we parents need to know the limits of our children, so too do we need to know our own… while remembering there are all kinds of children and all kinds of parents (often that comfort zone isn’t even close between two parents in the same family). In the end, we’re all working on becoming the best versions of ourselves that we can be.


  3. […] I trust their natural ability to develop, learn and grow. While I am in charge of their safety, I do not need to protect them from life. I do not need to direct her or show her how life works because she is capable of […]


  4. What a wonderful post! I also let my son climb and have had another Mom try to “rescue” him before. I’m amazed at how capable our little ones are…if given the space. I LOVE reading posts like this!


    • Thanks for the supportive feedback, Amanda! I think the hard part for me is that even when my mind rationalizes that I want to give her the space and my gut wants for her to feel free, some other part of me (which part? my heart?) is doing the hand wringing….seriously scary stuff sometimes!


  5. […] weaved it’s way through many conversations was that of trust. We had conversations about weight, climbing, eating, sleeping, nursing, signing, talking, sharing and more. Underlying all of these was the […]


  6. […] my 2.5 yo daughter is climbing 10 feet in the air and then wants the merry-go-round to spin while she’s suspended up there. […]


  7. […] already explained in my climbing/trust post how, as a rule, I let my daughter climb and don’t help her down or up when […]


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