Children & Discipline

Learning to Let Go: How An Outing with my Kids was the Perfect Lesson in the Power of Empathy

Published: 10 Oct 2016
Learning to Let Go: How An Outing with my Kids was the Perfect Lesson in the Power of Empathy

Each week in our home we make it a priority to have at least a few high quality hours of family time. With six children, a dog, and two businesses, it can be tough – but we make it a priority and it happens most weeks. Sometimes it’s Super Saturday. Other times it might be a Fabulous Friday night… it doesn’t matter when, so long as we do it. And we make sure our activities are usually low cost or no cost.

Now and then, though, we splurge a little. And so last week we hit the indoor climbing walls with the children. For safety, each person climbing wears a harness.

Ropes and carabiners are attached to the harness, and a ‘responsible’ partner acts as belay to keep the rope tight in case the climber falls.

At this indoor climbing centre, there were a number of automatic belay machines. A rope hangs from the ceiling with a carabiner on the end. The carabiner is hooked to the climber’s harness, and they begin climbing the wall. As they do so, the rope retracts into the ceiling where the machine is located. Then, once the climber has gone as far as he or she wants, the climber lets go of the wall and the auto-belay catches them and softly lowers the climber to the ground.

Sounds safe and simple? Safe, yes. Simple, not so much.

One of my daughters, aged 8, hooked herself up to the auto-belay and began climbing. Once she had reached a height she felt was sufficient, she called out to me.

“Dad, what do I do now?”

“Just push off from the wall Annie. The auto-belay will catch you and lower you to the ground!”

I responded. Annie hesitated. “What if it doesn’t catch me?”

“It will. Trust me. Jump.”

Annie was around 6 metres up the wall. She was afraid. I empathised. “Annie, I know you’re a little worried. It can be scary to let go of the wall.” Then I offered some gentle instruction. “Have you seen how your sisters did it before you? They were nervous too. That’s normal. But once you let go, the machine will catch you.”

Annie was immovable. Her emotions were still rising. She was becoming flooded. But her arms were also fatiguing. This was increasing her stress.

“Come on Annie. I’m right here. I know it’s hard, and you’re worried… but you’ll be ok.”

I was concerned for her, and could not understand why she wouldn’t simply let go of the wall. After all, she had watched her big and little sisters do it without fear.

It took a while. Annie’s big sister climbed up beside her on another auto-belay machine and demonstrated what to do. And eventually Annie let go, returning safely to the floor. After that, there was no stopping her!

Rock Climbing

Around 20 minutes later, I had an opportunity to use the auto-belay on another climb. It was my first time using the machine. Once I reached the top of the wall, I had a moment of perfect empathy. I looked down and felt my anxiety levels rising.

I couldn’t let go! What if the auto-belay didn’t catch me? I am much bigger and heavier than my 9 year-old daughter.

I began trying to climb back down the wall. It only took a minute before I realised I was stuck. I climbed up again, and then descended, trying to work out how I could get back to ground level without letting go.

A staff member walked by and I called to him. “If I let go, will this really catch me?”

My voice must have betrayed me. I sounded desperate. He looked up, smiled reassuringly and replied, “Yeah, for sure.”

And so… I jumped. The machine did its job and gently lowered me to the ground.

As I descended it occurred to me that this situation was a perfect representation of what we so often do in our relationships with others, and particularly with our children. We see their anxiety, and because we are a little bit detached from their situation, a lot more mature, and vastly more experienced, we respond with, “Oh, you’ll be alright. Come on, have a go.” We fail to really understand how things are for them.

When our children are emotional, they need us to turn towards them, and do our best to really, truly see the world through their eyes. We may not make it all better. Sometimes they still have to jump. But at least they know we’re right there with them, feeling every moment and understanding how it is for them.

It can be tough being a parent. It may be one of the toughest things out there. One of the only things that might be tougher is being a kid.


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