Tiarna was only 12 months old when we moved to Memphis. Within weeks of our arrival, she made friends with a particular gorilla in the Memphis Zoo.
We lived only a mile away from the zoo. With a family membership, we visited up to three times a week – often enough for Tiarna and the gorilla to form quite a bond.
The gorilla would see us coming, early in the morning, and climbed up to the viewing window. Tiarna climbed up onto the ledge on our side of the window and the gorilla sat next to her on the other side of the glass. There they sat, copying each other and communicating in some form that seemed to mean they would look for each other the next time.
Jesse was nearly three. He seemed to have two speeds – full speed and asleep. The ‘rangle-tangles’ (that’s Hahn-children language for orangutans) were not as accessible as the gorillas. But they knew us well enough to wave to us – particularly to our little, blonde, bouncy Jesse.
We soon discovered that Jesse had an amazing affinity with birds. Memphis Zoo had an indoor, thermostatically-controlled aviary where birds from all over the world were free to fly around, all year round.
Inside the aviary, we wandered along the paths very slowly. Often we stopped to sit and practice being very quiet.
Jesse sat on a low rock wall and birds came right up to him – most often a bleeding-heart dove and her chick. Many people asked to photograph Jesse with the birds within centimetres of his face.
It was almost magical … until the peace shattered when someone burst into the aviary, running, shouting and sometimes even chasing the birds.
We had lived in Memphis for a couple of years when the zoo installed a Butterfly House. On our first visit we wandered through with Jesse’s pre-school group and a tour-guide.
During the tour, many butterflies landed and stayed on the floral dress I wore – obviously attracted to the colour of the flowers.
The children were fascinated, and I felt rather privileged… until I wriggled and they flew away.
At the end of the tour, we watched butterflies emerge from cocoons. One butterfly hatched completely and took its first flight while we watched.
On my next visit, I remembered to wear the same dress. I stood still in the Butterfly House and about a dozen butterflies settled on my ‘flowers’.
Other people noticed and came to have a closer look.
A girl came up to me and demanded that the butterflies come on to her dress.
She yelled at me.
She yelled at her mother.
She yelled at the butterflies.
The butterflies took flight and flew to the farthest corners of the enclosure.
The child reminded me of the children in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
So did her mother.
The mother pleaded with me to help to get butterflies onto her daughter – as if I had a magic wand.
I couldn’t help – just as if she’d asked me to arrange for the birds in the aviary to come close to her daughter, or for the gorilla to play with the child.
A couple years ago Jesse left our home to go renting with a friend, and Tiarna flew to Ireland to meet up with a childhood friend from Memphis (not the gorilla!). I think a piece of my heart went with each of them.
As I sit today and write, I think back to that mother in the Butterfly House, and I recognise that I have plenty of what she had.
I would much prefer to be with my kids wherever they are; making sure that they have everything that they have ever desired; that they can be happy; making the world safe and perfect for them; and wanting to take their place in scary times (bungee jumping and sky-diving not included!).
Then I remember back to our first tour in the Butterfly House.
When one of the other mums reached out to help a butterfly out of its cocoon, the tour-guide stopped her. The tour-guide stressed that in order to develop their wings properly the butterflies had to go through the struggle of coming out all by themselves.
As parents, it’s always tempting to protect our children from any struggles and to try to keep them happy. But we run the risk of growing beautiful children who can’t cope in the real world.
We can encourage them to learn, and we can influence their environment so that they can make wise choices.
But we cannot live their lives for them.
If we keep them so safe that they cannot learn consequences, or prevent them from experiencing that struggles are a necessary part of life we run the risk of them becoming dependent on us or others approval…always.
If we protect them from taking responsibility for their part in accidents, we don’t allow them to learn about cause and effect.
We can get in the way of their learning while they are young by not allowing them the freedom to explore within safe boundaries.
If we take it upon ourselves to be the provider of all happiness, we can prevent them from discovering that happiness is something they can experience from within themselves.
Our job is to prepare them for life; to let them know that they are always loved and to allow them to grow.
Our children need room to learn, to struggle, to laugh, to cry, and to stretch in order to develop their own wings.
And when they are ready, only by letting go of them can we watch them take off and fly.
Originally published as ‘Learning to fly’ in The Lutheran magazine, 2013, September edition. www.thelutheran.com.au