08/29/2013 05:29 EDT | Updated 10/29/2013 05:12 EDT

When to Shove Your Baby Bird Out of the Nest

When I was a teenager, I taught swimming lessons for years, and I used to dunk unwilling little landlubbers all the time. That's right, you heard me, after a reluctant four-year-old had clung to my arm for a few too many weekly sessions, I'd say in a very upbeat voice, "Guess what, today is your lucky day you're going to go under!" Then I'd look into their giant terrified eyeballs, hold them far out of grabbing range, count, "One, two, three!" in the most excited voice you could ever imagine, dunk them quickly, congratulate them like they're Michael Phelps, and then put them back on the side and pretend like the whole thing had never happened.

Most of the time, this tough love process totally worked. Parents weren't permitted to watch the lessons, but when viewing day finally rolled around, they were shocked to find that the little water-hating-kitten they had known was suddenly splashing around like a kangaroo or porcupine.

Fast forward twenty years and you'll find me watching my own two little kittens by the side of the pool rather than teaching others. My son is three, and my daughter is six. When I was seventeen I had very little sympathy for parents. I was glad they weren't allowed to watch lessons, because they nearly always impeded kids' progress. Their kids whined louder when they were around, and when they saw me pushing their kids' limits, chances were good that the little extra "dunk" some kids needed wouldn't happen. Now that I've become a parent myself, I completely understand why parents can be reluctant to push.

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Both of my kids are cautious, and sensitive. Mine are not the kids on the playground who are running around throwing themselves off the jungle gym, and I've never had to watch them at the mall to make sure they don't surf the moving escalator railing or leap into the decorative fountain pool. Let's focus on my son, because he is most stubborn in his appetite for risk. My little guy was the last one at nursery school to stop crying each morning when I left, and this took over six months. It's a given that at a petting zoo birthday party he won't be touching the snake or holding the tarantula. He met the minimum age requirement for gymnastics, but I had to pull him out after one class because he screamed for an hour -- rope climbing or the rings can be torturous, sure, but all the coach was asking for was a couple of trampoline bounces, and he still wouldn't oblige. People are usually shocked at what a "good kid," he is, and this is very true, as long as the safety of my chicken arms isn't far from his reach.

And then came soccer. I signed him up and hoped for the best, but of course I knew getting him on the field would be a struggle. The whole family went to watch his first game, but he refused to step onto the field. Two weeks went by (vacation) and we bartered and bribed the whole time, until he swore he would give it a try. The day came, and he made it as far as the sidelines, but for a good while the only parts of him that got exercise were his lungs. I suddenly had a solid kid-shaped growth on my thigh. I was ready to limp my way home with my goiter as I had with gymnastics, now priding myself on my ability to successfully ask for refunds. I was tired.

But I brought out my A game. I told him that if he just touched that ball with his foot one time we could go home. His teary little face looked at me and asked, "One time?" I knew I had cracked his mini suit of armour. He decided to do it, tears swapped for a look of resolve, pushing past all the munchkins surrounding the ball, and fulfilling his duty by gently tapping that ball with his foot. He ran straight back to me and I celebrated like he had won the Nobel Peace Prize for soccer, but of course he asked, "Okay, can we go home?"

Thank God for snack, because it was presented right then, and even though the boy doesn't like taking risks, he certainly does like a good snack. I talked him up the whole time he chewed (we're talking motivational speaker style, for 10-15 minutes) and he agreed to touch that ball just one more time. Play started again, he ran onto the field, dribbled the ball on a breakaway from one end of the field to the other, and scored a goal.

I nearly died.

And this time, as I was legitimately celebrating his Nobel Peace Prize for soccer, I made a mental note, and my mental note was this. Parenting is tiring, and fighting your kids' natural tendencies can be exhausting. Growth and change hurt, and there's risk of lasting resentment or shut down if you push kids too hard, and this is what those parents knew years ago who gave in to their kids' water-fearing cries. But learning and greatness only come with tolerance for pain, and fear, and as parents we need to use the experience our kids don't have to help them push their limits. It's our job.

By Ann Moore

Originally published on The Purple Fig

The Purple Fig is a community where women share personal and relatable stories; no ego, no shame. We're about life, love and all of the stuff that makes us yearn, squirm, and giggle. These stories make up the authentic and intriguing journey of a woman.

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