It was supposed to slow him down. But the nightly ritual of reading Harry Potter I hoped would transition my six-year-old to bed clearly was not working. Felix was not snuggled in the crook of my arm. He was, in fact, mooning me. “Pull up your pants,” I grumble between Quidditch plays. Out come the threats: If you don’t stop wriggling, poking or jumping and start listening, I’ll stop reading. “What is Hermione’s cat’s name?” I yell as he burrows under the blanket. “Crookshanks,” comes the muffled reply.
Too easy. Fed up, I snap the book shut while he rolls himself up in the duvet, pretending to be a sandworm. His head pops up, motionless for a split second, and he begs for “one more page—please, please, please.” I demand a summary of what we’ve just read, and he rhymes off the potion ingredients Harry has messed up with superfan accuracy. Grudgingly, I turn to the next page while he ducks back under the covers. At least one of us is tired.
For Felix, moving and thinking go hand in hand. As do moving and eating, and moving and listening. The only time he isn’t in motion—bouncing, bounding or rebounding—is when he’s strapped in by a seat belt or watching Star Wars. Even the most fleeting cuddles have resulted in fingers in the eye, elbows to the ribs and, sadly for my husband, many, many hits to the groin. At every meal, he sits halfway off the chair with one foot on the floor—ready to take off with any provocation (the cat walks by, he needs his Nerf gun, he must show us what he can pick up with his toes). And he typically slips some element of risk into everything he does: Felix shimmies up door frames and asks me to walk underneath him so often, it’s now a perfectly normal way to hold a conversation.
As I anxiously watch him test what his body is capable of—whether it’s scaling rock ledges on a forest hike or teetering on a cart at the grocery store—I try to remember that I also climbed rickety, thin trees, got stuck in chest-high swamps and dove headfirst into rocky waters (literally). Learning what to do when branches snap or you lose your footing is an incredibly empowering lesson, but in this bubble-wrapped age, it can be hard to let them take those risks. I am constantly reminding myself of this, even though it’s hard being a lone cheerleader. At the park last summer, for instance, I encouraged Felix to jump from the lower level of the play structure. “It’s just sand—nothing will happen!” I urged, and at the same time, another mom ran over as her son bent his knees to leap: “Stop! You could break your leg!”
We need to stop watching our kids so closely, and remind ourselves that wild and reckless (or wild and misbehaved) are not always the same thing. There is something joyful in this fleeting phase of unrestrained abandon, and this fearless eagerness and gusto is as delicate as it is wild. We need to protect it fiercely; chances are our kids will be OK. So when I cuddle Felix, I’ve learned to anticipate the inevitable bolt upward to slam into my chin; I’m willing to dodge these blows for as long as I can, because the possibility of a bloody nose means he still wants to be close to me.
I will confess, however, that Felix’s sixth birthday party pushed me to the brink. There were 16 six-year-old boys at the gymnastics club. All was well during the 45 minutes of instructor-led gymnastics time, but the 30 minutes that followed for pizza and cake felt like 30 hours. The kids vacuumed up the food and morphed into one shrieking mass that ran through the facility like a raucous boy centipede. I ended up on a chair, near tears, ineffectively yelling “sit down!” On the car ride home, I kept muttering, “I can’t do it again. I just can’t do it again.” (You know how you look back and laugh months later? I’ll let you know when that happens.)
So what went wrong? Apparently I was under the impression that I could take the excitement of those 16 boys and contain it in one small room. If I let that boy centipede loose outside and told it to come back for cake, I might have watched the pandemonium and thought, They are having the best time ever. Perhaps, like Max in the land of the Wild Things, we need to let them go there and trust they will return better for it.
A version of this article appeared in our March 2016 issue, titled “Climbing the walls”, pg. 38.