I watch as my son slings his backpack onto his back, tennis racket handle sticking out the top, places his foot on the pedal of his bike and, pushing off, swings the other leg over. He effortlessly bikes away, disappearing around the corner of a house in a flurry of fluttering fall leaves.
It is a beautiful, sunny day, the cloudless blue sky deep and promising. My son looks for all the world to be a confident, independent boy, ready for a day alone at the park.
But he’s only eight.
And I’m a panicky worrier.
I have always followed his lead when it came to allowing him to take the next step towards independence. I stayed home for the full year after he was born, but started him early in daycare, three days a week, when I could see he was itching for something more than time at home with mom.
I moved it up to four days a week when I could see that three wasn’t enough for his social tendencies. And then I went back to work full time when I could see yet again that he needed more.
Letting him go to the park alone is a new development. As is letting him walk home alone from his after school program at the local recreation centre every now and then. Both are roughly in the same direction, two and four blocks from home respectively.
But we do live downtown and though ours is a quiet, residential neighbourhood, we are on the edge of one of the busy nightlife areas in our city. Not that it has a really extraordinarily ruckus nightlife. And not that he is out at the park at night anyway.
It was my husband who first pointed out that at that age, he was running amok with the kids from the neighbourhood, having fun, getting into scrapes. Living.
Yes, those were different times. Most kids aged eight are now inside playing video games. On a beautiful fall day. Not experiencing the sweet, character-building taste of independence.
My husband also shared with me this article about kids who are kidnapped in Canada. It calmed my fears somewhat. And I came across this story of a New York mom who let her nine year old son take the subway through Manhattan by himself. Of course, that caused quite a stir, but the mother seemed well-balanced and logical in her book, Free Range Kids, her column and on her trip around the talk show circuit which ensued.
And the boy is still alive – seven years later.
There is a balance, though, between letting our son have some freedom and space and being foolhardy. We know him and we know what he can handle and what he can’t.
We wouldn’t, for instance, let him bike to school on his own. Too many busy streets, too many possible moments of misplaced attention and concentration. But four blocks home from the local recreation centre is fine, and two blocks from the park is even better.
And at the park?
He recently proved he has been listening to us when he turned down an offer of ice cream from the lady across the street. They ran into each other when he was on his way home from the after school program one evening. She was buying ice cream for her daughter and offered him some, but, good child that he is, he said “I’d love some but I don’t think my mom would be very happy if I did.”
Nevertheless, I’m still that worrywart. While he is off gallivanting, I’m at home cleaning the house, or preparing dinner, or writing, and the whole time there is a little movie running in the back of my mind, showing me all the things that could go horribly wrong…
- He could fall and hurt himself.
- He could be kidnapped.
- He could take a poisoned candy from a stranger.
- He could get hit crossing one of two roads.
But I don’t want to hold him back from his next level of development and growth because of my fears. I want him to live.
It’s true that if something happened to him I would never forgive myself. On the other hand, I can’t chain him down at home and have him watch his childhood pass him by. No matter how tempting that is to my risk-averse personality.
Nevertheless, as the agreed upon return-home time approaches, I watch the clock a bit more and when I hear the garage door go up signalling he has made it safely, I breathe a huge sigh of relief.
I wait for him to come upstairs, I put on my best relaxed mom smile and I ask him if he had fun.
- Helicopter Parents or Free-Range Kids: How protective should we be? | Babble (babble.com)
- Broken record… (sab5561.wordpress.com)
- The Simple School Project That Sets Kids Free (freerangekids.com)
- Is outdoor child’s play doomed to extinction? (blogs.independent.co.uk)