When giving freedom to a child is the right (if scary) thing to do

by ParentCo. March 09, 2015

LATE LAST SUMMER, as I attempted to get dinner ready, my son was working himself into a tizzy about something I can't recall. I allow myself to get pulled into these downward spirals all too often. Initially, I attempt to defuse him. Eventually we both lose our patience, and before I can even pinpoint the transition, I become the problem. I didn't want to go there again, so I suggested he do exactly what I wanted to do. Take a walk.

We live in a suburban neighborhood, a few blocks from the end of a three mile road leading straight into downtown. Housing developments along the way keep it fairly well-traveled, though it's not crazy with traffic. We default to one specific loop when we head out for quick family walks. I gave my son clear instructions to walk that route as many times as he needed to cool down.

I suggested this because exercise always clears my head and pulls me out of a funk. Yet from the way his eyes lit up as he repeated "A walk? Alone?" it was clear that this first allowance of true independence was the aspect he truly found most appealing. He was 8 years old at the time, the mean age of the two Silver Spring, Maryland kids whose parents are now on file with CPS for 5 years after allowing their children to walk to the park unaccompanied. Apparently, what was once a fact of life now resembles neglect (to excitable paranoid know it alls, anyway) and warrants government intervention. Did I worry? Of course. Isn't that a prerequisite of being a parent? A constant nag of slightly irrational worry from now until forever? But I've learned if I want to maintain any degree of sanity, I have to weigh the risk of any given action against the risk of simply leaving the house. At that moment, affording him some physical space and giving him a brand new tool for dealing with big feelings outweighed the monumentally slim gamble that something terrible could happen. A FEW SUNDAYS BACK, my kids had been up for awhile, bickering and eating cereal before I peeled myself out of bed. My son has always been the sort of kid that asks permission for everything. When he was a toddler, he'd barge in on my morning shower to ask for cookies or candy. The same cookies and candy he could have easily grabbed, shoved down his gullet, and returned to destroying his room before I even conditioned my hair. I always entertained his requests for a second, because his honesty (daftness?) was commendable. My three-year old daughter , on the other hand, will take whatever she wants. When she gets caught, she scrambles like one of those newfangled fast moving zombies, giggling like a wild woman while she devours contraband cookie monster style before you can stop her. For all intents and purposes, both kids have a general common sense about them. I've never caught either of them washing their hands in the toilet, nor have I nearly suffered a heart attack because they dashed ahead and into the street. (If anything, I've been reprimanded by my son that I'm going to get his sister killed by not holding her hand in an admittedly empty parking lot.) I've never installed cabinet locks, and if my daughter walks in while I'm cleaning the bathroom, she'll inquire, "are you using chemicals?" and dash away shrieking when I confirm that I am. They both express a healthy fear of danger. I suppose I weighed these facts subconsciously when I finally came downstairs. The sibling pestering had reached a full roar, and my son clearly needed something to do with his seventeen limbs. We were out of half and half (a level orange emergency), and as though it was something I had suggested a hundred times, I told him to put on his coat and go pick some up from the corner store. It would be just like the walks he'd gotten used to taking, but this time, in the opposite direction, and with an assignment. I've never seen him move so fast. The child who spends 40 minutes of each morning pretending to get dressed, curled up in an underwear clad ball on the kitchen floor in front of the heat vent, had his boots and jacket on before I could even scare up three singles from my wallet. My husband was not fully on board. Instantly he offered to go get it himself. But it was too late to pull the offer of freedom laced responsibility off the table. Part of me has known for years that in situations like this, I would be the more permissive parent. Turns out, real life tragedy leaves in its wake a tender lens through which to view the rest of your life. When my husband was just seven, he crossed the road in front of his house to buy candy at the store. As he headed back, his four year old brother rushed out to meet him, miffed that he'd been left behind. Without looking, he bolted into the road, into the path of a car that could not stop in time. My husband watched as his tiny body was thrown over the hood, landing limp under a tree. Almost thirty years later, the images are as horrifically clear as they've ever been. His shoes laying in the road, knocked off by the impact. The way he panted his last breaths in the shade of the tree as he shouted his name over and over. I can feel it in his grip as we hold hands at a crosswalk. I hear it as he instructs the kids to keep their eyes on traffic as they wait for the light to change. I see it in the way he holds his breath as he navigates past pedestrians. There are things that never leave you. But parenting from a place of fear is paralyzing. Letting that fear hold our children back from discovery of self and discovery of the world around them serves no one. And so, off our son went, happy to be helpful and trusted. Sure, I spent the last five minutes before he returned staring out the window, willing him to come into view, and I was plenty wired before I got that first cup of coffee, but it was the right choice. For all of us.
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