Free-range frets: It's not my kid, it's what other parents will think

One mom realizes that her elementary school-aged son is growing more independent, but as she considers letting him enjoy a little more freedom, the concern of what other parents might think of her gives her pause.

Michael Cialgo/The Gazette/AP
Manitou Springs Elementary School students walk up Pawnee Avenue as snow falls, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, in Manitou Springs, Colo.

I was singing in a house concert that was going to last way beyond my son’s bedtime, but never wanting to be left out, my 5-year old insisted on sitting still through all 2 hours of the music. Before it started, I told him that whenever he was tired and ready to be done, he could make a quiet exit and go to sleep in the guest room.

With only one song to go, I saw him lay down his program in his seat and tiptoe his way out of the audience. By the time I got into the guest room to check on him after the music ended, he had brushed his teeth, put on his pajamas, folded his clothes, turned on a reading light, and tucked himself in with a book. He all but pushed up his monocle when I walked in, and said with utmost elegance, “Oh, Mother, I had not anticipated your arrival so promptly."

Knowing him as well as I do, I wasn’t too surprised…but I was a little. What else was I assuming that he couldn’t do on his own?  The first interactions with my child included the fact he could literally do nothing on his own – not even hold up his own head. My motherhood instincts took over and I did absolutely everything for him, like any mother would. Of course, children grow and become more independent, but it takes an especially renewed perspective from the standpoint of a parent to see them as capable human beings instead of the little infants who relied on us for everything.

The stakes are getting a little higher as my son gets older and I’m remembering my own independent childhood, and I’m not the only one – articles are popping up everywhere full of opinions spanning the extremes of both helicopter parenting and free-range parenting.  

In a column in the Washington Post, Petula Dvorak recounts white-knuckling the time that passed when she gave her two boys, ages 7 and 10, permission to walk to the corner store on their own. She makes the argument that the world is in fact safer today than it was a generation ago, but we are so much more keenly aware and fearful of the dangers that it’s overtaken the simple fact that the only way to help children become more independent is to give them the experiences that allow them to exercise their own abilities and hone the all-important, sometimes elusive trait of common sense.   

I live about a third of a mile from my son’s bus stop and his after-school childcare site.  Each morning I walk with him to the bus, and each afternoon I walk him home. There are sidewalks along the relatively calm road with no need to cross a street in this safe, family-friendly neighborhood. Do I think he could make this walk on his own at 7-years- old that we’ve made a hundred times together? Absolutely. He might be a little late after he stops to observe a snail climbing a stick for 10 minutes, but I have no doubt that he’d be safe.

Although I actually love the walk with him, I’ve asked myself several times why I don’t let him enjoy the pride I know he’d feel by doing it on his own. My answer every time is, “Because they’d slay me on the 11 o’clock news.” This is not my own overly-cautious mother’s paranoia, either. Recently, a woman in Baltimore had six police squad cars show up on her doorstep after letting her children walk to the park on their own.  

While my case may not really be news worthy, my overwhelming concern is, what would the other parents think and say? I certainly don’t see any other children on their own, some of whom are several years older than mine.  In other words, it’s not that I don’t trust the child or think it’s a safe trek – I feel confident in both of those things in spades. It’s that the shaming I’d get from this generation of parents that keeps me from allowing him these first steps of independence, and I think it’s a disservice to my son.  

While it’s an absurd case of severe neglect, the recent story of the two 9-year old boys who lived on their own for several weeks gives some hint to the fortitude and ingenuity of children. This was indeed a very sad thing to have happen to these strong boys, but surely there must be a balance between absolute neglect and stunting our children’s abilities to discover how to learn for themselves.  

The other day, our neighbor was late to pick up his 5-year old daughter at the bus stop, and I happened to have the car that day. It seemed silly to just leave her alone there in the freezing cold while my son and I took off, but we had already waited several minutes. So there we stood in the snow, waiting with her instead of driving her home, because I was too worried that we’d pass the father on the road, and I’d have to stop him and say, “Over here! I have your daughter in my back seat.”  

On one hand, this could seem like a kind, neighborly thing to do. But in today’s rather alarmist culture among parents, I fear I might have been accused of any number of horrible things. The fear of parental retribution took over what seemed like an otherwise logical thing to do.

Then again, how would I feel if someone stopped me on the sidewalk and said, “Oh don’t worry, your son hopped right into the car with me when I told him to.”  When is a neighbor no longer subject to the “don’t get in the car with strangers” mantra?  I might have been taken aback if the roles were reversed, but because of the current culture, it’s hard to distinguish my reaction from what I’d expect others to do and how I really felt about the situation.  

Perhaps the old African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” was more applicable when children were walking to the corner store on a regular basis, or encouraged to walk to school by themselves, or even making their own meals, or most important of all, making their own mistakes in a relatively safe environment.

I don’t yet feel comfortable enough facing the other parents who might see my son walk to the bus stop on his own, but I do feel comfortable enough asking, what can we do to change the culture where we as parents feel more supported in encouraging independence, provided we do it wisely and intuitively?  More importantly, how can we help our children have the experiences where they learn how to take pride in their accomplishments, however that looks for each individual child, and help them foster a confident awareness of their own wisdom?

I imagine we all have an inkling of what a generation of adults might look like that were never given the opportunity to test their wings towards independence as children, but we also know that children symbolize the very definition of potential and newness.  What has your child learned today that may have passed by you?  Given the right tools, only they can imagine what they will be able to do tomorrow.

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