Parenting Fail: The Cliff

We were on a beach. The sun was shining. It was one of those rare holiday experiences when we felt like we were getting it right. We were together. No one was screaming, crying, fighting or on their way to A&E. It was the sort of moment people put on Facebook. So when my son pointed to the big rocks, at the back of the beach, under the cliff edge and asked to climb them; there was only ever going to be one answer. Of course!

I continued to think we were getting it right until a stranger asked me if it was my son who was climbing up the sheer face of the cliff. Being English, I understood the subtext to the question as, “Either you have allowed your son to do something very, very dangerous, or you are not exercising proper supervision of your son to notice that he is doing something very, very dangerous. Either way you are a very, very bad parent. I am giving you the chance to be a good parent. Please get him down. Now.”

I love being English. What she said was so much briefer and more gentle than what she meant. It saved me time and my self-respect.

I did get him down, trying to show the right amount of anger while also trying not to panic him, as his life was probably at risk. In honesty, I did briefly admire his courage and skill to have climbed that high, while wishing that he had had the good sense to have attached himself to some sort of safety harness. When he was down, I then publicly disciplined him. I think the watching beach was broadly put at ease that I was a parent who did not himself need further supervision.

Until the next stranger came up to me.

This time, it was really awkward. This stranger was more gentle with me than the first. But much more urgent. “Is that your son? He can’t get down.” Stranger #2 was pointing up the cliff. This time my son was even higher. If I can again be honest, this time I actually felt calmer. Unlike last time, he was no longer climbing higher as I watched. So although he had reached frighteningly close to the top of the cliff, he was at least standing on an outcrop, facing me, looking fairly secure. Stranger #2 was significantly more worried by the situation than I was. Under these circumstances, I decided I should appear worried, to reassure him that I was taking this as seriously as he was. To this day I wonder how many on the beach had witnessed both situations. Mercifully this new stranger obviously had not, or at least I assume he had not, because there was not a hint of, “What sort of parent are you? This is the second time your son has almost been seriously injured TODAY. Is every day of your child’s life this life-threatening?”

As I looked up at my son, very high up, I could see in his eyes that he wouldn’t need me to be angry. His mistake was written all over his face.

Stranger #2 and I clambered, climbed and rescued. I was very grateful to him. I preferred him to Stranger #1. My son and I had a big hug. He probably apologized. I don’t remember. That was the last time he climbed up that particular cliff. Since then he tends to take me with him on such climbs. I try to choose adventures with smaller audiences.

It is tempting to wonder whether he would have learnt that lesson if he hadn’t got stuck. Would he have apologized if he had actually got over the cliff edge? Would he have then celebrated instead? What if he had fallen? So many questions. I chose not to ask my son any of them. He learnt the lesson that day. I tried to teach him the lesson after the first incident. His stubborn heart (that he has sadly inherited from me) meant that he only learnt the lesson after the second incident. I am grateful that my son has two fathers. One earthly. One heavenly. One is far better than the other. Both discipline him for his good. One is much better at it than the other. I mostly just use words. That’s really all I have in my tool box. His heavenly father uses every situation in his life. I look at his tool box in awe!

“Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” (Hebrews 12:10)

I pray that my son grows up knowing and enjoying the kindness of his heavenly father. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep him alive.