“He’s only five.” This is what we say when we want to excuse our son’s behavior or give him credit for saying something brilliant.  He’s only five.  Some days it means that it’s not his fault that he is a wild little beast who sprints through the store acting like he snorted pixie sticks on his way in with absolutely no impulse control.  Other days it means that he is a genius with the perfectly timed hilarious statements that come out of his mouth.  Our expectations of what he can/should be doing at his age are largely determined by our sense of his development.  In truth, we have no idea of what he should or should not be capable of. So what do we do? Experiment.

You never really know what your kid can handle until you let them try.  A few weeks ago, I requested that my son attend his special education meeting to discuss his progress and in this case, how well he was doing.  It was clear to me that he was the first five year old in my town’s district who was ever asked to attend this formal, legal meeting on his behalf. When I told my husband I wanted my son at the meeting, he said, “He’s only five.”  In my mind, he is five, enrolled in school and now responsible for being an active part of his education. He should be a part of the discussion about him and how he’s doing, and if he has an opinion about what is happening to him, to share it.  My husband felt he was too young to be involved.  We disagreed on his level of responsibility and developmental appropriateness.  Because I’m a bit pushy, and I had already called the school and had him invited, he went.  It was an experiment. And it was fantastic.  He was nervous and sat very close to me not knowing what to expect.  The school staff spoke to him directly and asked him questions and he was an equal part of the meeting. He heard them say wonderful things about him and how well he had progressed and that his hard work paid off.  It could not have been more perfect.  And now I knew, he absolutely was ready to be part of his own life and the decisions made for and about him when it came to his education.

Fast forward to last week when my son broke down crying one night out of nowhere saying he didn’t understand why everyone had to die.  “It never ends! It doesn’t make sense! Everyone is born, gets old and dies!” Nothing had happened, no one we knew had died. But he said every time he drives by a cemetery, he thinks about death and it makes him sad to know that everyone will eventually go. He wanted answers. He wanted to understand.  And he wanted to know why God never answers him when he talks to him.  And I thought, “He’s only five.” He shouldn’t be thinking about life’s fragility and the downer of knowing there’s an end to everything.  He should be climbing trees and jumping from high places, taking risks for fun and plotting out how’s he’s going to sneak a piece of the Halloween candy his mom thinks she’s cleverly hidden.  I wanted him to just ignore his worries and be a carefree kid, but he was asking for grown up answers and he wasn’t letting it go.  So we snuggled on the couch and tried another experiment.  I asked him what he thought happens when we die and then filled him on what I believe.  I explained the law of the conservation of energy and how energy can never die and how we are all made of energy.  He asked more questions and I simplified as much as a could, but gave him the details he wanted.  Once I confirmed that “God” could be up his nose, he was grossed out, we laughed and the conversation ended.  Another successful experiment…I think.

As I’m sure you realize and have experienced, the experiments don’t always work out.  I’ve got a 70/30 success rate, so I’m feeling good this week.  The clothes he picks out for himself confirms his lack of fashion sense and the way he puts his clean clothes away makes it not worth folding them, but he’s slowly getting it.

Sometimes the limitations we choose for our children in order to protect them are actually making them even more limited.  The more we shelter them from trying to do things on their own, handle situations or think for themselves (with our voices guiding them along the way in their head), the more dependent they will be on us and need us for much, much longer.  The more we experiment and let them try to do things on their own, use their own voice or expose them to reality, the more independent and self confident they will become.

Sometimes being “only five,” qualifies my kid to be a young and independent genius, and other days it qualifies him to get in for free at the museum because somebody decided he’s too young to appreciate the art. But the reality is, I never know which five year old he’ll be unless I give him the chance to prove what he can do, and keep him away from the pixie sticks.