We’re living in the age of the helicopter parent. Things that used to be normal for kids, like riding bikes or walking to school, now seem fraught with danger. Thanks to the media, we know every awful thing that happens to a kid anywhere in our country, even the world. Everyone knows about Madeleine McCann and Natalee Holloway. As a parent, it’s terrifying. No wonder we stick a little closer than moms did 30 years ago.
I had quite a bit of independence when I was a kid, mostly because I lived on a tiny island and there was only so far I could go. The danger would have been not from strangers, but from swimming in the ocean and getting sucked out in a rip current, or drowning. When I was below high school age, I knew I wasn’t allowed to swim in the ocean without an adult. All the kids had that rule, and we all followed it. I had plenty of independence without going into the ocean. I rode my bike all over the place, often with a gaggle of other kids, and we explored the woods and the salt marsh. There was plenty of trouble we could have gotten into, but most of us were responsible and respectful, and so we didn’t.
Giving my kids that same amount of freedom is almost impossible in the suburbs, although I try. The world seems like a scarier place now. We hear about child trafficking, kidnapping, child pornography and people who generally enjoy hurting children. There’s also a lot of mom-shaming that goes on. “You let your kid do what???” Trying to raise an independent child means suffering through the comments of other moms.
Recently my 9 year old son has been asking for quite a bit more freedom. He is totally stoked about his bike (he recently moved up to a real mountain bike with hand brakes and gears), and he wants to ride it everywhere. We live in a small neighborhood and he quickly tired of riding up and down our street. He started asking to go further out, but there is a busy main road that I would never in a million years let him cross. People are horribly distracted when they drive these days, and even though I trust my son, I don’t trust idiot drivers.
We came to a compromise. He was allowed to ride anywhere there’s a sidewalk, as long as he didn’t cross the main road. He could ride into other neighborhoods, which made for a nice long ride. Before long he started pushing that limit as well. One time the two kids and I rode our bikes to the grocery store, which involved crossing the road, and he got it into his head that he wanted to ride up to the store alone and buy himself a drink and a snack. He wanted to go alone, pay for his items in the store and then enjoy them. To him that felt like a very adult thing to do. The kid definitely inherited my penchant for solo adventure travel, because he wanted to do it alone.
There was no way he was crossing the main road alone, so we came to another compromise. He is now allowed to ride on the sidewalk all the way up to a gas station, buy his drink and snack, put them in his backpack and ride home to enjoy them. Even that worries me. There are adults around a gas station and he’s close to the main road. We have strict rules about not talking to anyone except the cashier, not going into the restroom, not dilly dallying, not getting close to anyone’s car, and the list goes on.
Riding to the gas station and buying himself something (with money he has to earn) has become his favorite thing to do. He’s out in the world alone, responsible for himself. There’s the potential for danger, and that makes it exciting. Twenty years ago riding to the store for a drink would have been no big deal, but it’s 2019 and everyone is paranoid because bad things really do happen. I let my son take the risk because he has to take risks to be successful in life, and he may as well start now. I don’t want him living in my basement when he’s 32, so I want him to know how good it feels to be be independent. Freedom is addictive. Each time he ventures a little farther out, he gets a taste of adventure, of personal responsibility, of risk and reward. Hopefully when it’s time to move out, get a job and manage his own life, he’ll be ready.