A Grandfather Asks How Much Freedom Can My Grandson Take?

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Rafa wants to go to the big kids’ slide. He made a few trips to the little one and enjoyed them enough, but at 2½ he seems to understand that the greater the risk, the greater the excitement. With the confidence of a matador, he walks into a long, green plastic gutter, with a steep, curving structure, rising 12 feet into the air, standing next to a sign that says it’s designed for kids ages 5 to 12.

I try to steer him towards the part of the playground reserved for children his age, but Rafa doesn’t have it. He starts running towards the big slide, then tries to get out of my arms when I pick him up. As her grandfather – G-Pa, she tells me – I’m her only protector right now. This is my first time to this playground but Rafa has been here with her grandmother before so I may be underestimating her. Maybe he knows better than me what he can do here. Should I let him climb to the top for a more exciting experience, or is it too dangerous to take this chance?

Every adult responsible for a child’s well-being faces similar questions. With freedom comes discovery and joy, but also potential harm and disappointment. We constantly put them on a mental scale to weigh them against each other. When we put the bike down, should we catch it when it topples over, or should we hit the pavement and let it learn? If we let him join the basketball travel team, will tougher competition inspire him to improve or hurt his confidence? When he begs to play football, are the chances of him getting a concussion too high to let him pursue his passion?

I tend to be overprotective about Rafa in what I hope is subtle. He may be perched on the kitchen counter, apparently safe with one of his moms nearby, but I’m still close enough to catch him in case he slips. I already see a pair of scissors out of reach, and I can’t help but slide them a little farther, because you never know. But this time I decided not to do a timid G-Pa. Today, scale hints at freedom.

Rafa climbs the ladder to the top of the slide while I follow him under a pop fly like an infielder while I’m right down. No being stupid on the hill, I tell him. Sit on your ass and come right down. He does exactly that, and as he starts the descent, the panic on his face instantly gives way to a big smile, and he accelerates as he accelerates on the corner. But just before I reached the end where I expected to catch him, his body turned slightly and he slammed his cheek against the side of the slide.

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