Sunday, July 26, 2009
"It’s all this mistaken notion that if we avoid everything, we’ll avoid risk."
In the past week of summer vacation, I have permitted the following activities:
My eight-year-old stayed at home to play computer games while I and the three Littlers walked a block up to the little neighborhood market to buy cheese for dinner sandwiches that night.
My eight-year-old and six-year-old walked to the vending machines at the pool from the playground sort of next to the pool, to buy treats for themselves and their brothers after swim lessons. Then they went back again because Seg punched the wrong numbers into the vending machines and wound up with peanut butter crackers instead of a bag of Skittles. My friend M and I stayed at the playground, chatting and watching our Littlers play in the dirt and run around.
The three older boys roasted marshmallows and flung wood onto the fire, and traipsed around the woods collecting feathers and walnuts and leaves, and slept outside in a tent. I sat on a porch swing next to the fire with a bottle of Straub’s and my friend A and talked (when I wasn't bogarting their burnt marshmallows).
The two older boys and their friend rode their bicycles and scooter around and around the block and up and down the alley playing some sort of tag they made up involving Harry Potter and much loud casting of spells (their extremely common use of the Cruciatus curse might give me pause for concern...)
The three older boys ate popsicles on the front porch while I put the baby down for a nap upstairs.
The two older boys took my coupons and went and retrieved items I needed in other aisles of the grocery store while I waited for the damn fishman to give me my order.
The two older boys continued playing a game in the van (windows down but vehicle locked, of course, parked DIRECTLY in front of the coffee shop and with several people we knew sitting at the tables out front) while I ran into the coffee shop to pick up a (pre-called/ordered) latte.
None of these sound completely crazy, do they?
I mean, really REALLY beyond-the-pale crazy?
Because they are activities that have been a little tough for me. A little tough on my over-protective, overactive mothering instincts. Activities that frankly fly in the face of the helicopter parenting most of us practice (or are expected to practice) these days. While the boys were on the porch, I envisioned – I dunno – Jack the Ripper? White slavers? A slavering pedophile in a panel van looking for his puppy?
Yes, we live in the city, which means I lock my doors and car at night. I will not allow my children to play in the actual street. I am cordial but distant with strangers walking up and down the street.
But *I* grew up riding my bike where I pleased, and was pretty much left to my own devices most of the summer, and a lot of the rest of the year. (Remember this post?)
We kids ran up and down and IN the street, and we built treehouses in the woods at the end of the cul-de-sac (which incidentally backed up onto a major freeway, separated from our street by a cinder block wall and little else). We played hockey and kickball in the street ("CAR!"), and I was allowed to walk not only to my friend Roseann’s house at the end of the street, but to my friend Stacie’s house, across the previously mentioned highway (there was an overpass). I was permitted to walk down the street the other way to the pond, to fish and skate and to hang out with my friend Stephanie. I was permitted to ride my bike anywhere I could pedal it, which often included the 7-11, the movie theatre, and the ice cream store (all roughly within a mile radius).
In addition, I was sent away every single summer for weeks at a time to camp (and loved every blessed minute of it), where I had a large posse of friends I didn’t see the rest of the year; we ran around in the woods (sometimes in the middle of the night), canoed and kayaked and played in the creek; we climbed all over a ropes course and in the trees like monkeys; we camped outside, built large fires, learned to shoot a bow-and-arrow and a BB gun, and swam miles in the freezing cold pool at 5am to earn meaningless badges.
I was not only permitted but EXPECTED to walk the two long blocks to the bus stop and take a public bus three miles home from school in the winter months, when my mother didn’t drive due to snow (my older brother was with me most days, and this didn't start till I was in second grade). (One memorable snowy day, when my brother was not in school for some reason or another, I fell asleep and missed my stop. The bus driver turned around at the end of the route and drove me to my doorstep.)
I was a Free Range Kid.
Before the days of 24-hours-a-day news channels trumpeting every single missing child (and even some not really missing), before the days of Stranger Danger programs and the prominence of organized sports, before the days of your kids’ friends all living in the ‘burbs to which you must drive, I think most of us my age (39ish) were.
After reading Lenore Skenazy’s wonderful and reassuring book Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, I feel like a new convert.
Lenore Skenazy is passionate about her cause: Giving children — and their parents – freedom. For the kids, it’s the freedom to play outside without grown-ups, to make mistakes, to climb trees, to walk to school alone, to frolic. For their parents, it’s giving them the confidence to let go of irrational fears that make them to want to place their children under lock and key or 24/7 surveillance. Or both. (from Picket Fence Post.)
The zeal with which I am now actively trying to develop my children’s independence must necessarily (and wisely) be tempered by a number of factors. For example:
- Their ages –would I send the three-year-old to the vending machine alone? I WOULD NOT.
- By their personalities and common sense - Would I leave the six-year-old home alone for half an hour? I actually might, since my six-year-old is the most responsible of all my children – it might depend on where I was going, and how he felt about it.
- And by MY common sense: Would I drive my twelve-year-old to the local mall, along with a friend, and leave them in charge of three younger siblings, including a three-year-old? Boy, for all my zeal and independence-building, I sure would not. (I have an eight-year-old and a three-year-old. I would not trust them at a large public shopping mall with anyone but me, and sometimes I even wonder about me.)
Skenazy allowed her then-nine-year-old to ride the subway alone. For this feat of mothering confidence, she was interviewed all over national TV and vilified by lots and lots of plastic talking heads in the media. She discusses this reaction in her book, and she then goes on to discuss why we have become such a fearful and overprotective society. She backs up her strong opinions with solid empirical evidence, citing, among others, David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, and several prominent NY pediatricians (her own included). She cites numbers at a dizzying speed, debunking many of our long-held and weirdly cherished beliefs re: stranger kidnapping, online predators, cell phone use by children, and the need for toilet locks (I personally gave up toilet locks when I couldn't get one open at an, er, critical moment. Thank God we have two bathrooms). Her tone is friendly but firm; her writing style would seem most at home in a mommy blog (I don’t think that’s an insult, is it?).
I may be a little bit in love with her and her ideas, and if we lived in the same city, I would so find her and make her be my (enabling and supportive) mommy friend.
Would I let my nine-year-old ride the subway alone? Perhaps, if he’d grown up in NYC and was used to riding the subway with me and it was daytime and he didn’t have to switch trains...see how it goes? You have to use your parenting instincts and skills to make the best decision for you and for your child.
But you also must stretch a little, take a few chances – let them spread their wings and attempt a solo flight. Because eventually (dear God, I hope and pray) they grow up and move out and must do their own laundry, and believe it or not, little Junior needs to know how to turn on the stove and live in his own place and ride the subway to work at some point.