Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Feeling Crabby

I come out of my crabhole to mention this piece, which many of you have surely seen. It concerns the cocoon of neurosis and hysteria that continues to bind our collective parenting circle in this country...and no doubt in other countries too by now, countries in which real danger isn't imminent in the lives of middle class children and so parents fixate on hypothetical ones. This article--on whether children should be allowed to walk alone to school--is a timely one. Because after the reappearance of kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard, many parents are rethinking their decision to allow their kids to walk to the school bus...or home from a friend's. Because what if some insane lunatic chooses your child, at that moment, on that day...?

I understand what if. Duh. Becoming a parent is the ultimate what if act, one long series of what-ifs every single day and night. No doubt about it, motherhood is the most fearful enterprise of my life, and trust me, I am a feeble coward in all matters, but becoming a mother has brought out the total crabcoward in me: I continually scuttle into the darkness of my scared mommy-mind, debating the what-ifs...You moms and dads know what I'm talking about. I need hardly list for you the many hideous things that pop into a parent's mind daily, when it comes to children's safety. And it doesn't even have to be all that hideous to prompt us to spring into Safe Mommy mode, leaping to spot a tot on the monkey bars or gallumphing stupidly after a preschooler on her scooter, just in case she should happen to fall. No generation prior to ours has perfected the art of preempting a what-if before it even happens: we are masters at it, springing into action in advance of any danger....just in case...because, you know, it could happen.

And so one goes through the toddler and preschooler years reaching to stop something from happening before it even has a chance. And maybe along the way we relax a bit, deal with the scraped knee and the bump on the head. Or the broken arm, even. Because we realize these kids need to learn how to ride a bike or do the monkey bars or climb a tree. But then there comes a moment when a parent has to let a kid leave the house without him or her. And that's when, apparently, many of us draw the line, deciding that, in fact, our kids don't have to learn how to walk to school/ the bus stop/ wherever on their own. Because this time, it's not worth the risk.

But to model one's parenting style on fear-based thinking is surely just as sinister if not more so than actually dealing with fear itself, with the random, baseless, uncontrollable what-ifs of life. If we never let our kids walk to the bus stop/ ride a bike to a friends without Mom tailing him in her car/ take an airplane to see grandparents, alone/ play on the front lawn without being watched...our children will not grow up to be independent, able to take and assess risks, able to navigate through the world around them. If we teach our kids that they are a bunch of wussies and that they should be wussies because the world is a scary place, then we'll get fearful, nervous, freaked out, high-maintenance co-dependent children. We will get followers, not leaders, needy little twerps who break down at the slightest hint of hardship, adults who can't enjoy their lives properly because they don't know how to take control of their fears and insecurities...

All obvious...right? Less obvious, though, is where one draws the line as parents. At what point does the chance of a random Jaycee Dugard possibility trump the chance of teaching a child a measure of freedom? What risks are worth taking at what age? Nobody will give you the same answer with this one, and of course reasonable risk differs from place to place, child to child, age to age...there are too many variables to make a catch-all statement about this one. All I can say, for sure, is that it's extremely hard not to create total wussies in America today because few people are really assessing the risks properly: few people measure the what ifs of a pedophile/ kidnapper/ car accident with the what-ifs of over-coddling children, seeing the former danger as vastly outstripping the latter in every single case. Even though most readers of this blog and that NYT piece live in the safest possible neighborhoods, we still seem fixated on safety above all else. And yes, it's important to be vigilant and smart and careful. But it's not everything.

To my mind, weighing the other what-if is just as important as weighing up the real physical risks attached with any measure of freedom a child will need, want, and require. What if I don't give her any freedom? What if I don't let her walk to the bus stop (when she's 8 or 9 or whatever age seems right at the time)? What if I don't let her have adventures on her bicycle with her little friends? What happens to her then? And what happens to me as a mom if I wander around compelled to invoke the specter of Jaycee Dugard and Etan Patz every time I consider allowing my kid some independence in her safe, safe, super-safe American life?

As we all know, overprotective hyperfreaked parenting is all-pervasive in our Nation of Wimps. And it is all too easy to become such a parent. It's an impulse I have to fight in myself all the time; sometimes I get wussy, but I strive to buck the heck up. Because the primary goal of parenting is to foster independence. That's our number one job as parents: to teach our children to live in the world. It's a crappy world in many ways, but we haven't colonized any other planets yet so we need to give our kids the chops to deal with where they are, and they aren't going to get those chops if they don't see them modeled by the adults around them.

I am heartened by moms such as Lenore Skenazy (who let her kid ride the subway alone because he was ready) and the mom in this Times piece who lets her second-grader walk to the (very close by) bus stop even though people around her constant undermine her decision and invoke what-ifs as though, in fact, they are probabilities and not wildly exceptionally unlikely possibilities. She calls her daughter's walk to the bus, "a political act," and indeed, it seems to be: not only does one have to be brave in the face of what-ifs when it comes to allowing the kids independence, but now apparently we have to be brave in the face of disapproving communities.

I'll try to think of these moms when it comes time for Crabkid (now almost 5) to take some steps out of the door without Mom and Dad. I'll have to think of these moms, because I don't see a lot of freedom around me. Not in my 'hood anyway. I never ever see 9-year-olds biking or skateboarding on our sidewalks without a mother or father in tow. My neighbors don't allow their son onto the front lawn by himself, even though he's in the 4th grade. I think that's scary. Don't you?

What independent moves beyond the house do you let your kids take? And at what age?