As adults, we know that our actions and attitudes have a dramatic effect on the young people with whom we live and work . Most of us also recognize that acting on our best intentions sometimes has unintended consequences. Seeing the pronounced effect even small actions can have young people can be enlightening.
A while back I took a class of second graders on a short hike. The trail we took wound its way above a creek, climbing to the top of the hill before heading back down to a rocky beach about a 1/2 a mile downstream. Not a long hike, but pretty big for some of the students. At one point during the hike it becomes necessary to work your way around a protruding tree root along an especially narrow part of the trail. Negotiating some rocks at the highest point along the trail you then proceed down a set of rough stone “stairs”. It can be a bit dramatic–which is part of the reason I do it. I’ve hiked this route many times with students from 8 to 18 years old without incident. Until Tuesday…
On Tuesday four adults set out with eight students to hike the trail. We’d split the class of twenty-four into 3 equal groups to ease the flow and give students opportunities to experience three different activities centered around an investigation of water in the natural environment. Our first hike was completed without incident–save for the obligatory conversations along the way reminding excited students not to run and to stay in close porximity. When we reached the root mentioned above, the adults took up positions along the side of the trail to guide students safely along. Each student passed through in turn and walked down the steps back onto the dirt trail.
Our second group of the day was having much the same experience until the second to last girl–we’ll call her G–passed me on the stairs. As I looked up to make sure the next child was safely in place to begin the descent, G took a tentative step backward and tumbled from the side of the stone stairway. It was a dramatic fall. When I jumped down to help G, she was a bit shaken, but there was no obvious damage save a small scrape on her arm. In fact, when given the choice, G opted to head on up to a higher, but wider trail for the return trip rather than crossing a foot bridge to head back on a level, paved path.
My final hike of the afternoon was pretty much the same as the first two until we reached the now infamous stairs. Though none of the children knew about G’s fall, as adults we were a bit more cautious (I might even say overly cautious). We maintained what we felt was the same attitude and demeanor, but this time I walked with each student from the root negotiation all the way down each step.
The process took considerably longer and was a little awkward, but that’s not what was most striking. In this third group several students expressed fear either verbally or through their posture. This hadn’t happened in our earlier hikes. Granted there had been slight hesitations and slow steps, but never the outright expression of fear.
There was nothing remarkable about this final set of students. No more or less experience on hiking trails, no age or ability differences. The only difference was in the actions of the adults. In our abundance of caution, we’d instilled a level of fear beyond what was ordinary… or necessary.
As adults we often tell ourselves that our primary obligations are to love and protect our children. But what kind of love is it when our protective instincts instill fear?