How I stopped hovering and learned to love the playground

don't worry, baby. mama will catch you.
I have always called the time between a child’s age of 18 months and three years, the heart attack stage. You know why – toddlers want to touch it all, taste it all, see it all – and climb it all. They conceive of no boundaries to their newfound physical abilities and the only thing standing in the way of exploration is their limited arm span. Oh, and their mother.

As somebody who operates on a constant, though low-level, anxiety buzz, the toddler years were especially hard on me. Even my cautious first-born daughter naturally wanted to test the theory of gravity and how it applied to her, jumping from couches, climbing on tables and sliding down staircases. But these feats of physical prowess, though they had me spastically jumping up to act as spotter or catcher on a near-constant basis, were easy to manage inside the house. It was the playground that was my true nemesis.

To a child, the playground is a mountain to climb, a challenge to conquer, a good time to be had. But to me, it was quite literally, a death trap. My toddler would scramble awkwardly up the stairs to the lower platform and I would be there, hands out, ready to boost, catch or grab at the first wobble. She would slide down the small slide and I would run like a mad person to be at the bottom to greet/save her. The area at the top of the platforms that are open to fireman’s poles or climbing walls were my arch enemy. I stood beneath them barking at my baby to keep moving past the entrances to certain doom, and on to the relatively safer environs of the twisty slide.

At the merciful end of our visits to the park (I always gave it a respectable 30 minutes), I would scoop my child back up, plop her in the stroller and walk back home, allowing my heartbeat to slow back down from racing to merely amped. How, I wondered, do mothers with more active children than mine survive this?

I would soon find out.

Child number two was completely different than child number one. She tricked me, with a later start to walking, into thinking that she would be even more chilled-out than her sister, but she soon made up for lost time. She thought of ways to kill me that were way beyond the amateur stuff her sister had gotten into. Stairs? Sure, but only if she can hop down them backwards. Chairs? Ok, but she’s not going to merely stand on them when their slatted backs make for such good ladders. And playgrounds?

Nothing could have prepared me for a trip to the playground with my second daughter.

It was my worst nightmare come true. Not only was she not at all a cautious child, as I had been led to believe that all of my children would be, but in addition to having no fear, she also had the desire to follow older sister, then three and a half. There was no way that I could stay on top of both kids, so I reluctantly shifted my focus to the smaller, more insane child, and tried to keep up. I couldn’t.

Whereas my elder child had wobbled and climbed slowly onto the apparatus, my second catapulted herself up and on. Where my first would actually heed my shrieks prompts to move past the deadly open spots, my second would linger there, leaning out into the abyss, just daring me to have a coronary. Hopefully my body would make a soft landing pad for her when she plummeted off the side. And every playground we went to, I could see that I was not alone. Parents everywhere were readying themselves for certain death every time their kids climbed a ladder. Clearly, I had reason to worry.

I had no choice but to give up. And what I mean by that is, I deemed the playground Daddy territory, and refused to go anymore. Chris could take care of it. If the kids were going to perish at the park, it would be on his watch. I couldn’t take it anymore.

And this is how it was for a while. Quite a while.

Then, in the summer of 2011, we moved out here to the cornfield, where the deer and the children run free. And where a brand new, 17 acre park was just remodeled and reopened, including a 1050 metre splash pad and three full-sized, state of the art playgrounds spread amongst the paths. We lived within walking distance. My children, not surprisingly, wanted to spend a lot of time there.

So we went. And the place was always busy. It’s hot out here in the cornfield, and the splash pad rivals the one at the Toronto Zoo. But it was not the splash pad that gave me palpitations – though on a really busy day I always worried about my kids getting mowed down by the others – but did I mention three play structures, each bigger and more complex than the last, with more things to climb and more places to dangle out into the abyss?

For the first few visits, I wore myself out with the wrangling. Not only was I trying to somehow stay near my kids to ensure they did not break their necks on the playgrounds, but I was constantly trying to convince them to stay in one place, in the same place, preferably near me. Between the splash pad and three playgrounds, the kids wanted to go everywhere, and it was never together. If one wanted to be in the fountains cooling down, the other wanted to climb the giant spider web. If one wanted to play under the fire truck, one wanted to be at the other end, where the swings were. My kids just wanted to play. I wanted to cry.

And then I looked around. Other parents were not freaking out. Other kids were not with their parents. Sure, the kids were running from one side of the park to the other, but the parents were not in a frenzied rush to keep up with them. Everybody was having fun. Everybody was ok. Was this some magical place where kids didn’t get hurt or stolen or try to give their parents heart attacks in their spare time?

Actually, yes. It is different here. Partly because there is not a major busy downtown street abutting the park, as there was at the places we frequented in Toronto, but I just think that here, in the cornfield, people are just more relaxed. I have no other helicopter moms to catch a buzz off of here. My natural instincts do not seem to be the natural instincts of the parents here. Shouting at my kids to watch out for every. little. thing. started to feel embarrassing and excessive rather than necessary. They were having fun. They were being kids. We came to the park more and more often, and more and more often I saw happy kids playing with other happy kids and chilled-out parents chatting with other chilled-out parents. I wanted to be one of those. 

My younger daughter, the fearless one, started school this fall, where she is obviously allowed to play on the playground virtually unattended. And when I pick her up at the end of the day, the first thing she and her wee friends do, is run right back to the equipment. And there she shows me what she’s been practicing – flips on the bars, jumps off the platforms, heights climbed on the apparatus. She is proud of herself and her physical accomplishments, and for almost the first time, so am I. I do not yell, Be careful! or the less manic version, Pay attention!

Show me again, I tell her. And I actually mean it.



  1. this is inspiring. the playground is not my zen place. at all. i do find it gets easier (for me) after the age of three and we are almost there. besides, at that point, the bigger ones have had my SCREECHED warnings burned into their brains. sigh. i dislike this aspect of myself, i try really hard. but my hubby and i have decided it's better that he just handles this bit of parenting. i need to stop reading the news if i'm ever going to stop worrying about every little thing.

  2. Oh Karen, this is a beautiful, beautiful post.

    I don't have kids, but I can identify with your hovering and your worrying. I'm exactly like that. Only since I don't have kids (and the cat can't understand me), it's my partner that gets my "Be careful!"s. Usually, as he points out, after he gets hurt or does something stupid where he could get hurt.

    Your post has captured my exact fears of being able to let go, how I tend to live more cautiously and as a result of that, I tend to nag those around me to slow down to my cautious pace as well.

    I hope one day I'm able to encourage those around me with a "Show me again," instead of scolding them to be careful.

    Thanks, Karen.

    1. You're right, this applies not only to kids. The motive for the worrying is not to try to control them, it's to try to protect them, as impossible as that may be

  3. I go back and forth between ZOMG! and chilled-out. I only have one, and she's generally a bit cautious, but I worried and hovered far more than I should during the heart-attack years. It's a good reminder that once they are in school, they are given a lot more freedom to play. Then we can enjoy their growth as kids as we try and survive our growth as parents. :)


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