As a grade-schooler, I would climb over our backyard fence (which bordered a playground) and walk to class on my own. I usually came home for lunch, and remember bringing friends with me—sometimes without my mom being home. I wasn't a latchkey kid by any means. I had loving, involved parents. It was simply a different era, when free-range kids were the norm and there was far less concern about stranger danger (not that the world was truly any safer, mind you).
I have no desire to return to that era of laissez-faire parenting. Still, when my 10-year-old daughter, Isabella, asked if she could start walking the three blocks to school on her own, I thought it was high time to let her. And the advice in our magazine confirmed that it was age-appropriate. First, though, I had to teach her to cross the street.
We went out on a Sunday afternoon and practiced together. I modeled how to look both ways and watch for cars that might be turning left or right into the crosswalk. I stressed the importance of waiting for the image of the pedestrian walking to light up before going—and never to cross when the red hand was showing, even if she was certain there was no traffic coming. (That was a challenging behavior to model, as New Yorkers don't wait for an invitation to cross and constantly assert their right-of-way over cars regardless of what the lights indicate). Then I shadowed her, watching from half a block behind as she made her way home from school.
She was ready. Were we? Isabella had shown us that she deserved our trust, but how would we know she was okay? For many kids, technology is the answer: They call on their cell when they arrive safely. Only one problem: Isabella doesn't have a phone yet. So we worked out a compromise: Once at school, she would go up to the school office and make a quick "I'm okay" call. The administrator agreed to let her—in part because she supported the idea of waiting to get her a cell.
Now I get a call five times a week from my darling daughter at 8:03 am: "Hi, I made it to school, dad." I tell her I love her and wish her a wonderful day. And then my wife and I can rest easy. Isabella asks repeatedly if she can stop calling. The answer is no.
Still, she's taken other noteworthy steps on the path toward independence this year. She now gets her homework done on her own before we return from the office, which has facilitated a far more peaceful evening routine. She picked out her fifth-grade science project (pictured) on her own, recruited and tested subjects without our help, and put the whole thing together with minimal help. Heck, she even got it done early. She has also started going for "out lunch" on Fridays with friends, a lesson not only in independence but also, we hope, in money management ($12 doesn't go as far as you'd think, especially in Manhattan).
Recently, she got her ears pierced. My wife wanted to wait until Isabella showed she was responsible enough to clean her own ears three times a day for eight weeks so as to prevent infection. But Isabella had proved herself in other areas (including street-crossing), so she got her wish. True to her word, she has cared for them properly, and has only one more week to go.
I can't claim that there aren't areas in need of improvement. Isabella needs to be reminded to change the empty toilet paper roll and (sometimes) to set the table. We're still working on life skills like fetching her own snack and sorting her own laundry.
Even so, she's come a long way this year, and her graduation from elementary school is more than a formality. My baby is growing up. She'll keep making strides toward independence during middle school, and we'll gradually have to learn to let go.