I read a news story recently about a Texas woman whose neighbor called the police to report that her children were playing unsupervised in the cul-de-sac in front of their houses. The mother was charged with child abandonment and spent the night in jail.
I am not sure which is more horrifying: the neighbor calling the police or the arrest. The kids, I should mention, were 6 and 9, and the mom maintains that she was in the front yard the whole time. If this mania about unattended children is a trend, I’m in serious trouble.
Wait – I’m not the only one in trouble. Our children are. Since when do we not trust our kids to make wise decisions because danger lurks everywhere? How does that mentality serve to raise kids who are capable of self-sufficiency and decision-making? If you think this is just some wacky Texas thing, think again. Several months ago I took three of my children to pick up something from another mom, and while we were chatting I mentioned that my 11-year-old was at home, somewhere in the neighborhood on his bike. She reminded me that someone had tried to abduct an 11-year-old from a local store that week. Didn’t I see it on the news? Well, I had, but because we don’t live at Walmart, I didn’t think my children had to be under house arrest. These were two different circumstances. I considered the risks and benefits of letting my child, whom I know better than anyone else does, be in my community, which I know to be more or less as safe as any other. Sure, he could have broken an arm or worse on his bike, or (more likely) his mouth could have gotten him in trouble with another kid (who would have dutifully told his or her parents instead of handling it without adult intervention). It is probably more statistically likely that he’d be in a car crash on his school bus, but nobody seems to be clamoring for a halt to kids riding the bus.
I refuse to live with that level of worry. Lately I’ve been letting my oldest “babysit” my youngest while I get the two middle kids from school. (Quotation marks are because when an older sibling takes care of a younger one, that’s just the luck of the birth order draw: I’m not paying him, so he’s just doing his sibling duty). Last week I was waiting to run to carpool because of strong thunderstorms. When I decided it was OK to get on Interstate 40, I told my oldest that the worst was probably over, but if there was a problem, he knew what to do. Because he does. Kids will rise to the expectations we set for them, and I expect him to take care of his brother. This has had a profound impact on both boys: They get along better, my older son is more patient with his brother, and the younger brother has a kind of hero worship thing going on. I’ve seen one too many of my kids’ contemporaries who act like complete nincompoops when it comes to taking charge of a situation because nobody has ever expected them to do so.
Can we all just agree that we don’t have to watch our kids all of the time and that unsupervised play is an amazing thing? Stand back and listen next time you can to hear kids negotiating the rules, making meaning of each other and really communicating. I do, but not everyone can stand to relinquish control. A few years ago a mom at our pool told my son to let another kid (not even hers) have a turn in their game. The boys were doing fine without a grown up to tell them how to play. If the kids cannot take turns and play by the rules, they can go home, or they can work it out together. Chances are they would rather stay, so they’ll suck it up and play by the rules the group established. I doubt anybody’s mom is going to come to the workplace in 20 years to tell her son’s coworkers to let him have a chance to make a presentation. If he isn’t allowed to figure out how to take turns when he’s 10, when is he going to learn?
The popular catchphrase for meddlesome parents is “helicopter parent.” I cannot do any such hovering with four children, thank goodness. When it comes to safety issues, I’m there, but I would rather teach my children how to begin taking care of themselves than micromanage them. Like other parents, I sometimes worry that I’m managing to scar my children for life in a variety of ways, but not by teaching them to fear the world around them. I have to admit, though, that I have a little bit of fear that I might be arrested for letting my kids do what previous generations took for granted: not being under the watchful eye of an adult at all times.