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Not on My Watch!: On Courage and Parenting

Not on My Watch!: On Courage and Parenting

An encounter with a mama squirrel causes one dad of two young children to reflect on how we can be brave for and protect our children while also letting them have experiences that will ultimately let them realize their own potential.


I like to take walks in Forest Park, Queens, with my son. At 3.5, he’s already a decent hiker. One time we were deep in the trees, when we heard a loud noise: Chook! Chook! Chook! I turned. A squirrel was yelling at us, from a branch about three feet away. Probably a mama, protecting her nest.

Ol' Mama Squirrel was inspired by a walk the author took with his young son in Forest Park, Queens

She was small, but she was fierce. She was ready to take me on—me, a full-grown man. Like a mini samurai, she was ready to die courageously. As for me, I wasn’t about to contract rabies in that ragged wood. I grabbed my son’s hand and we ran.

Later on, this squirrel became Ol’ Mama Squirrel, the brave mama who defends her litter against anyone and everyone who comes along in my latest picture book for kids. And as a parent myself, I certainly sympathize with her. Actually, I know that each one of us has this streak of courage. For me, it all started a long time ago…

When I was really little, probably about the age my son is now, we lived on the first floor of an apartment building in New York City. I remember one summer day, I saw a man peeking into our living room window. He was sweaty and had a headband on. He seemed to be trying to break in. I dragged a step stool over, and brandishing a clothes hanger, I said, “I’ll poke your eye out!” (I guess I had heard my mother’s warning, “You’ll poke your eye out!” more than once, and decided I could just as easily poke out someone else’s.) The man took one look at me and fled. Probably because he hadn’t known anyone was home until my little curly head popped up. By the time my mother came into the room, and I told her I’d scared a man away, he was gone. I was very pleased with myself. I knew I was little and he was big. But I was brave, and I had a pointy hanger.

Now that I am a daddy of a 3.5-year-old and a newborn as well, I’ve garnered more than a few grey hairs over the well-being of my children. I can’t count the number of times I’ve intervened à la Ol’ Mama Squirrel on behalf of my son. During his flinging-himself-down-the-stairs phase, I kept him from flinging himself down the stairs. During his letting-bigger-kids-steal-his-toys-and-then-crying phase, I got his toys back. During his pulling-the-furniture-down-on-his-head-phase, I held the furniture up.

All of us parents do this: keep our kids alive until they know better. Mama squirrels keep their babies from walking off a branch. We keep them from eating cigarette butts in the playground. At some point, Sammy stopped flinging himself into space, relinquishing his toys, and pulling things down on top of himself. As a matter of fact, he’s a pretty cautious little dude. I’m usually the one pushing him to try the bigger slide, or get on the carousel. Lately, when he takes a fall on his scooter, he reflexively says, “I’m OK!” before we can ask. I’m thinking this could be a sign of too much parenting. Us mama and papa squirrels have to let go sometimes.

After all, there is something to be said for being allowed to make your own mistakes. I know this is true because whenever I do stop urging, he goes ahead and jumps in the sprinkler or climbs the big-boy ladder. When he first got his scooter he refused to ride it. Then after a couple of months, he went to the closet on his own, took it out, and taught himself how to use the brake. Now he’s riding every day. After a while, the same cheeky spirit I had as a clothes-hanger-wielding 3-year-old always kicks in for my son. He realizes his own potential and I can step back and watch…ready to start chucking acorns at the bad guys if need be.  


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David Ezra Stein

Author: David Ezra Stein is the author of "Interrupting Chicken," for which he received a Caldecott Honor. He is also the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award-winner for his book "Leaves," which was also a Publisher's Weekly Best Book of the Year and a School Library Journal Best Book. He lives in Kew Gardens, Queens, with his family. See More

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