Helicopter Moms vs. Free-Range Kids:
A New York columnist lets her grade-schooler ride the subway alone, provoking a wave of criticism. But do kids really need more supervision than in generations past?
This morning I am revisiting a recurring theme around these parts – fear and parenting. I read this article, listened to a clip of the author speaking on NPR and visited her new blog Free Range Kids. I was fascinated. What she did sounds exactly like something my mother would have done. And sort’ve DID do. And I turned out fine, right? (right?) But here’s my question. Would I let my kids have the same freedom?
While I wasn’t turned loose in NYC until well past the age of the author’s son (9) I had my own share of more than comparable experiences. During our years abroad, my parents allowed us to do some CRAZY stuff. And while they didn’t like me dating a senior, or “hanging out” at a 7-11 with some friends, or getting home after 11pm – they actually let my brother and I do the following:
- At 3 years old, I was allowed to run through the Tunisian Souks and stop in to chat with shopkeeper after shopkeeper and then find my way back to where ever it was I had left my mother.
- At ages 9 and 10, my brother and I wandered and played aimlessly in the streets in Mogadishu, Somalia, often stopping into various huts to share some tea with locals.
- By age 12 and 13, we were free to travel internationally which included multiple lay overs, passport and custom negotiations, currency exchange, taxi bartering and hotel seeking.
- Around 14 and 15, armed with a map, a little broken high school French and some cash, we had complete freedom to discover such cities as Rio De Janeiro, Amsterdam, Johannesburg, Paris, Rome, Lisbon and even New York City just to name a few.
- Once we were driving at about 17 and 18, my dad would give us a “road mine” map of Mozambique and allow us to drive to Swaziland (past previously blow up vehicles who either didn’t quite miss a mine or may have been carjacked) to meet up with some friends.
- My brother’s summer job was animal tracking at an African game park (yes, he toted a rifle for self defense) – I am proud to say that I didn’t think that was very safe and stayed home to sneak off to parties instead.
These are only a few examples of the craziness my parents encouraged. And I am betting when they read this, they will chuckle proudly and exclaim what bright, well-rounded, experienced world travelers we were. I am telling you, they are patting themselves on the back and rehashing these tales to co-workers and friends (who nod politely, I am sure unable to discern if they are horrified or impressed). Bottom-line, my parents think they did a bang up job with us.
And DID my brother and I learn to be well-rounded world travelers? For sure. Did we learn important self-reliance skills ? Heck yes. Did we have fun? Oh, you bet. Now as a parent in retrospect, do I think my parents were completely and utterly insane. ABSOLUTELY.
And that’s my dilemma.
Is this world more dangerous than the one I grew up in? Would I let my sons do what I was allowed to do? I just don’t know.
After all those years seeing a grand scope of our world and trying to find my place in it, I think I have figured out where danger lies in the context of most things. I think. But then I had children. And I am telling you, my common sense and “worldliness” has flown out the window. If my child is within 3 yards of our road, my heart begins to flutter with panic. If my younger son stands at the top of the highest slide on the playground, I want to faint for fear he could fall. If a bee flies by, I immediately tense thinking my sons could have the same deadly anaphylactic reaction to bees that my father has. I live in parental fear and it needs to stop!
So, after years of flying by the seat of my pants, where has this come from? What feeds this fear?
First of all, it’s love. I love my children so much, too much really. But love should not be paralyzing. As a parent, I think of the worst. It’s like a reflex. There is a coin on the floor and immediately I can imagine my youngest son choking for air. No doubt about it, these schizoid visions are hardly constructive and the kibosh needs to be put on them. Now.
I also only have two children. My mother in law might argue that this is the problem. When a parent has more children, they don’t have the time or energy to worry as much. Parents naturally find the right balance that way – keeping them safe while giving them their freedom. Its a good point but, then again, my parents only had two kids and they seemed to let us figure it out. Yet, my parents were utterly insane so the point still stands as valid.
But, really, I blame the media and the general external pressure to be more careful with our children. Everything around us is so regulated and wrought with the possibility of danger. Parental panic has reached a fever pitch. Did you hear about the recent carcinogenic dangers of plastic bottles? Did you see the latest Amber Alert? Did you get the release about the newest sexual predator that has moved within a 5 mile radius of my house? Did you hear about the alligator that wandered into someone’s kitchen not so far from here?
It’s constant and I need to figure out how to filter all of this information – and quickly. Because if I don’t, my sons will really miss out. And while they may not be playing in the streets of Mogadishu anytime soon (honestly mom and dad, you are as mad as hatters, both of you), I really want them to understand context, to find their place in the world, to apply gritty common sense with everything they do and to respect themselves and the environments they find themselves in.
So buck up, Caroline. Remember your African roots, dig deep for your passport, find common sense, and unfold that “road mine” map again. The mines are out there but it doesn’t mean we’re going to hit them. We’ll just have a lot of fun avoiding them.