Before I became a parent, I mocked the moms who over-babyproofed their children's lives, giving their kids no opportunity to learn that corners are sharp, or that you can't walk in front of a moving swing. But then came Katie, and then Maggie, and then I realized just how dangerous the world was for wee ones. I put the latches on the cabinets and the gates on the stairs, and fed them organic everything. I wasn't taking any chances.
That vigilance didn't stop, even after the cabinet latches broke and it became clear that my kids had the good sense not to stick foreign objects into the electrical sockets. Because even though I knew I could trust my kids, I felt I could never trust the world outside—thanks to the stories about Elizabeth Smart, Amanda Berry, Madeleine McCann, and all those other kids that disappeared and made the news channels buzz with excitement and the parents among us panic. So my kids have been held prisoner in their backyard, kept away from the potential adventures (and dangers) just down the road.
My oldest is now nine, an age when I was freely wandering my neighborhood, off to my friend's house around the corner or the park a few blocks away—untethered, no cell phone to check in or mom frantically trying to keep me in view. But I hyperventilate every time I think of my nine-year-old crossing the street alone—even though I know the number of kids kidnapped by strangers has actually gone down since the days when my mom let me out to run wild in the streets—and they were never that big to begin with. We're talking 115 kids kidnapped by strangers per year—out of the millions of kids in our country. And at least my kids come armed with a wicked kick, thanks to years of karate—a skill I didn't even have when I was left to my own devices.
I knew I needed an intervention when I refused to let Katie walk herself to school—a mere 200 steps (and one crossing guard-patrolled intersection) from our house. So I started reading up more on the Free Range Kids movement, founded by Lenore Skenazy, a fellow journalist who was read the riot act by the media when she let her 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone.
While I'm not quite ready to do that (yet), so much of what she said made sense. The world is no more dangerous than it was when we were kids. Our kids need to learn how to trust their instincts and how to make decisions on their own. And we're doing them (and ourselves) a grave disservice by not giving them that opportunity. My daughters should know how to walk down the street safely by themselves, how to manage when something goes wrong, how to take care of themselves. And if I don't let them start now, when will it be time?
We can't babyproof the entire world for our kids—there's going to be disappointment, heartache, and yes, even danger in their futures. The best we can do is teach our kids what to do if things aren't going their way, and give them the confidence in their own ability to manage a bad situation.
But it's not easy to let go. We're taking baby steps. Katie gets to walk to school on her own this year, leaving a few minutes before I head out the door with her sister. And this past Sunday, we let our daughters head out to the playground down the street from us—alone. We peeked through the front windows and watched them carefully cross the street, holding hands. And an hour later, they came home safely, excited to have had a totally unaccompanied adventure.
My six-year-old wants to make this solo foray a Sunday tradition. And my older daughter is already plotting out how far she and her sister can roam the neighborhood without us. They're excited about a simple walk to a friend's house, a bike ride as far as we'd dare to let them ride. They're taking baby steps away from me, each and every day—as long as I have the courage to let them.
Image: Mother and daughter holding hands, Jackiso/Shutterstock.com