The conversations I have been having with parents and friends since the sad events of the past week have made me think a lot about parenting, and the role we play in raising our children. I have thought about the utter helplessness of my son and daughter when they were born, and about the feeling I had as the realization dawned on me that they were so completely dependent on me for everything. It was overwhelming and also so immensely satisfying because, at least as far as those basics were concerned – food, shelter, clothing, love – I knew I could manage it. Very quickly, however, there were things I couldn’t manage easily, and that feeling of not being able to provide exactly what (I thought) I could see my child needed, and even worse, the feeling of not knowing what they needed, those lessons were hard to take.

“Then there was something else difficult that soon entered into the picture: independence and autonomy.”

The oft-repeated words “No!” and “Let me do it!” signaled to me to step back whenever I safely could, though my inclination was to step in. I knew this was important – critical, in fact – to their growth and development, but I still clung to that feeling of dependence that had been so satisfying. Knowing that they were in the process of moving away from me, and that really I couldn’t continue to meet all of their needs, was a realization that brought some sadness.

It also brings to mind a family story about camping, and some Roosevelt Elk. My wife and I got in the habit for a few years of taking our two children camping for a week or so to a beautiful campground called Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park up in the most northern part of California. It’s a beautiful park and a spectacular stand of old-growth redwoods, right on the coast. In the middle of the Park is a large meadow, and often a resident herd of Roosevelt Elk can be observed there.

One evening, after having dinner at our campsite, and before we crawled into the tent for the night, we decided to walk over to the Ranger’s talk and campfire. It was dusk, and I was carrying my son, who was 2 or 3 at the time, on my shoulders. My wife and our daughter – 5 or 6 years old – were walking hand in hand just behind us. We were walking on a path that ran along the perimeter of the meadow when we came upon the Elk, and a doe and her calf were right near the trail! We were very excited, and it was such a thrill to share this with our young children. We stopped there and just watched them, talking in hushed tones, and simply basking in the beautiful scene. After a short while I noticed a large bull elk across the meadow, with a huge rack of antlers. As I pointed him out to the kids, I saw that he was looking at us too, and to my joy and amazement, began to walk slowly across the meadow towards us. I remember thinking “This is perfect!” 

“Then I noticed that the bull was coming a little faster, then running, and suddenly I realized he was charging towards us with that huge rack of antlers!”

“Run!” I shouted, and I took off, my son bouncing on my shoulders. The bull elk was coming at us full speed now, and it was clear he was aiming for us. My wife and daughter were running right behind me hand in hand when suddenly my daughter tripped and fell. My wife immediately bent to pull her up, and as she did my daughter cried out.  However – and this is what strikes me even today – she did not cry out “Mommy, help!” or “Help, Daddy!” Or even simply “Help!” What she yelled was “Somebody help me!” SOMEBODY?!

OK. The elk did not hurt us. Turns out it was a “bluff charge” the purpose of which was well-served: to get us away from the doe and calf. We had obliged, and so he stopped dead in his tracks. The other campers, who had been watching from across an access road (cameras clicking the whole time, no one coming to save us) had a good laugh. We continued on to the campfire, our heart rates gradually returning to normal.

But I have often thought about that evening, and about my daughter’s choice of words in her moment of panic – “Somebody help me!” I have come to the conclusion that for whatever reason, at that moment, on some level, she realized that we were not super human or invincible, and that while we might be the ones to help her, we were not necessarily the go-to helpers at that moment. And at many other moments thereafter, and to come, I might add.

This is a key dilemma, a paradox of parenting. We are so responsible, and so connected to our children, and yet our work is to prepare them to leave us, and to help them understand that we are simply flawed, loving humans who cannot, in the end, save them from the world’s trials and tribulations, though we will always try.