Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Letting go of balloons

On Valentine’s Day, my parents hosted all five of my children and me to a lovely after-school dessert party at their house. We left with two shiny red heart-shaped helium balloons. 

The balloons were of greatest interest to our three-year-old son, who delighted in bringing them carefully home in the minivan, releasing them into the living room, and making his sisters retrieve them for him all evening.

The following day was warm and blustery — for a Vermont February, at least. Two of my daughters went outdoors after lunch, and my son, in a classic little brother move, wanted to follow them. The only problem: He wanted to take one of the balloons with him. 

This is not my first rodeo. I am well aware of the expected result when a child takes a helium balloon outside: One way or another, that balloon is likely to float away, leaving potentially harmful environmental impacts and a hysterical child in its wake. 

Try explaining that to a determined three-year-old.

“You shouldn’t take the balloon outside, because it might fly away and get lost,” I reasoned.

“No! I’ll hold on tight!” he countered.

“Okay, how about I tie it to your wrist? Then you don’t have to worry about it flying away and your hands will be free.” See what a professional parent I am?

“NO! I will HOLD ON TIGHT!” he persisted. 

Just like that, I was launched into a perennial parenting dilemma: Do I double down, insisting on the rightness of my way (and likely spending the next 30 minutes dealing with a child in full-on tantrum mode), or do I let him have his way, lose the balloon, and learn from his own mistakes? I did a quick mental calculation. The potential harm to him involved minimal and momentary disappointment. This seemed to be outweighed by the potential benefits of being able to say, “Remember when you lost that balloon?” in the future — and the increased trust he was likely to put in my advice. 

So, I let him take the balloon outside. (I did consider the potential environmental impacts, briefly, and decided that my parental authority still took precedence. I have since looked up the effects of releasing mylar balloons and might reconsider my choice in light of what I learned. It turns out that mylar balloons, unlike latex, conduct electricity. Therefore, when mylar balloons encounter power lines they can cause power outages and fires. California, which has experienced thousands of power outages and acres burned due to mylar balloons, is looking to ban these balloons by 2031.)  

It turns out that we were both right: The balloon lasted a matter of seconds before the wind ripped it off its string, but my son never let go of his vice grip on that string. 

He wasn’t devastated, just confused. “Where did the balloon go?” he asked plaintively. 

To my surprise, it turned out that the balloon hadn’t been blown into the wild blue yonder; it had been whisked into the topmost branches of our backyard birch tree, where it was stuck. 

Take a moment to picture this: the grey sky, brown stubbly field, and bare black branches of a Vermont afternoon in February. And a single splash of color, a metallic red heart held high between two skeletal tree branches. It was beautiful. My daughters certainly thought so when we called them over to see what had happened. “Whoa,” they gasped. Then they started plotting ways to get the balloon out of the tree.

They tried climbing. They lugged our tallest ladder from the garage to the backyard, but the balloon was simply too high up. After a while, they abandoned their rescue attempts in favor of jumping on our backyard trampoline. That’s where they were when the wind finally ripped the balloon away from the birch tree and sent it soaring north over our field, over the tree line, and into our neighbor’s land. (Where there do happen to be power lines, but as I’ve not heard of any outages or fires, I’m hoping for the best.) 

“It went on a journey,” my son reported to me later.

“We told him it went to visit the moon and stars,” his big sister whispered.

Our own balloon drama happened just after the U.S. military shot down one Chinese balloon (which was being used for either spy or weather purposes, depending on which government you belong to) and three unidentified flying objects — also believed to be balloons — within an 8-day period. Our family had been following these events with interest, because our 11-year-old just so happened to be conducting research on aliens and UFOs for a report. (Much to our disappointment, the military doesn’t think any of these objects was an alien.) 

Why this unprecedented number of things in the sky? It turns out that NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) recently recalibrated its radars to pick up more than just heat-generating, fast-moving objects (like missiles and fighter jets.) More sensitive radars are more likely to pick up things like slow-moving balloons floating through airspace. To which the U.S. responds by mobilizing advanced military technology like air-to-air missiles fired from fighter jets, for a total cost of roughly $200 million.

My husband was explaining this to me as we walked our dog one evening, because he thinks it illustrates a lesson that’s applicable to our parenting. “See, when you set your radar to be more sensitive,” he said, “you pick up smaller things, and then you panic and mobilize your big guns to take out things that are probably harmless.” 

With five children aged three to fifteen, my parenting radar sometimes get twitchy, oversensitive. My trigger finger gets itchy at every blip that shows up — and believe me, there are a lot of blips. Should we talk to them about that issue? Should we let them go to that thing? Should we allow them to leave the house looking like that? What about their dietary and sleep habits? 

It’s enough to keep anyone on edge, scanning the skies for the next thing to aim at. And ultimately it leads to paranoid parents and skittish children, tired of always having the big guns turned on the tiny balloons. 

So these days I’m trying to make my radar just a little less sensitive, to keep the small things small and conserve my resources for the big things. To allow my children to make decisions that may turn out to be mistakes with small consequences, from which they will learn. It’s so very much harder than it sounds, taking your finger off the parenting trigger. To take a deep breath and let your child take a risk that you’re not at all sure about.

Unless it’s a mylar balloon; keep those things inside. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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