Sitting as I do, with my desk against a window, it is easy to appear deep in thought- even as my focus is on the nesting cardinal, the family of blue jays, the flirtatious mourning doves or an occasional off-beat pilgrim parrot. My tree-level window frames an ever-changing, 15-foot mini nesting environment, created by various gardeners who believe the overgrowth on the fence is better pruned by someone else. Thus, there is a dense, impenetrable star of jasmine, a pecan tree and Japanese ligustrum which supports a dead restaurant for an occasional woodpecker.
It is said that in the avian world, the mother bird teaches her babies to fly by pushing them from the nest. As a new parent I had not only heard this bit of wisdom but knew that babies were natural swimmers and only needed to be allowed to swim. Since I was neither the mother of birds nor sharks, I avoided the metaphorical sink or swim. This is not to say that getting it wrong as parents is all bad. In fact, small doses of mistakes and failure where a child learns that he can solve problems and deal with manageable measures of disappointment provoke the grist of good learning, flexibility and resilience in later life.
When Emily (the youngest of three neighbour girls) was a few weeks shy of her fourth birthday, she was learning to ride a bike. When she first began to navigate the world on her chubby little legs they saw she was strong enough to pick herself up. She was allowed to fall, struggle a little, as she persisted the cycle of falling and standing over and over again, getting better each time. However, as she learned to ride her pink bicycle- sporting a pink polka dot helmet, they were more guarded. Emily’s parents and older sisters supported her for a much longer time, making sure she had her own balance and never fell. The seat on Emily’s bicycle was at its lowest notch so that when her parents no longer held her, her own feet could reach the ground. Finally, following all of this scaffolding and support, the training wheels were removed. She may not understand how carefully those around her structured her world so she would feel smart- but feel smart she does. By the way she carries herself and studies the world around her, one observes a competent, self-assured little girl.
If the child is never given the opportunity to stand after a fall, or race her feet to the ground to become balanced, she becomes confused when real-life intrudes on the idyllic world of a flawless upbringing. And while we would like to be perfect all the time and provide a tearless happy life for ourselves and for our children, it is not always best to do so. Mindfully, like Emily’s parents, guiding those we care about through the thoughtful introduction of increasingly difficult tasks builds their competence.
There is a family of cardinals I have been watching for a while now. The females (less colorful than the males) are slowly approaching the size of their mother. I have never been fortunate enough to see the first jump from the nest—whether she pushes against them as they reach for their freedom or whether she pushes against them as they attempt to stay put, but what I have seen is that they first test their wings on branches very close to the nest and- similar to our children who crawl before they walk, the cardinals awkwardly flutter between nest and adjoining branch to learn to control the strength of their wings and direction of their bodies before they venture further. Their mother’s choice of a nesting site created an environment that was ready to provide support before it was ever needed.
Today they are all strong flyers, although still living at home. They move from branch to branch, between the pecan and a distant live oak and spend as much time signaling each other as they do their mother. One has taken to perching on the sill outside my office and looking in. Unlike the random bird that fiercely attacks his reflection and flies flat into my window, the cardinal, much prettier than his sisters, peers through the glass at me and back at the reflection he seems to recognize as his own. The mother’s flights seem to take her further away for longer periods of time. They no longer cry interminably for her when she is out of hearing and visual range. They seem capable of foraging for themselves and one sad day I will notice they are no longer here.
We believe that all of our children deserve the option of independence, and for most it as straightforward as the scaffolding the cardinal provides her young. But for many, parents of children who present differently, they are blindsided by difficulties over which they have no control, and challenges that are outside the range of their expertise. These parents are every bit as capable as those whose jobs are easier—they simply require more support and direction as they navigate the familiar along an unfamiliar path. Emily’s competence is created daily by her parents and it is for this we all yearn; for ourselves and for our children.
As my older daughter enters her 30th year and my younger her 28th, I reflect on the blessings of children; my own and those I have been privileged to know over the course of my professional life. Our dreams for our children do not change because of their differences. Sometimes they open the door and flawlessly assume the becoming of who they are. Sometimes we push against their premature leaving or push against their prolonged staying.
But in the end, my friends, sooner or later, they really do leave the nest.