Common Sense Parenting…?

“He was walking back from Tony’s??”

A parent-friend was incredulous. She had spotted The Boy walking down our street several weeks ago, and had assumed that he was walking home from our local playground/park. While The Boy is allowed to walk to the park, on this occasion, he was walking home from Tony’s, our local “corner” grocery store. My friend’s tone changed quickly from sweet bemusement to horror.

“But that requires crossing two busy streets!?” another parent-friend chimed in, immediately horrified.

“Yes,” I replied. “Both streets have traffic lights and crosswalks, and The Boy has known how to obey the signals since he was 3,” I explained as an air of awe mixed with disapproval settled over the conversation.

I left the conversation feeling confused and a bit concerned. Is there something wrong with me? Is it developmentally inappropriate for a 3rd grader to run small errands for his mother? Is a visit from DCFS in my future?

When I was 6, my mother regularly sent me to buy a gallon of milk at our local convenience store. The route required walking up an alley, past a gas and service station, across the street, through a parking lot, and past a drive-thru bank exit to the White Hen Pantry, which was located just next to the junior high.

What’s the difference between these two scenarios? Thirty years, two stoplights, 25 miles’ distance, and a whole lotta fear-mongering in the press.

And so I suddenly feel that I’m on the “wrong” end of a parenting philosophy that I didn’t even know I held. As my children grow up and I attempt to teach them independent-thinking (a/k/a critical thinking, a hallmark of their K-8 curriculum), I have suddenly realized that by allowing my 9-year-old some basic freedoms to be a kid, I’m somehow a pioneer parent of a different sort. You’d think I was breastfeeding my 4-year-old on the cover of Time with a defiant look in my eye.

Like Jamie Grumet, I’m trying to parent by instinct. But in today’s litigious, fear-filled world, it’s difficult to separate instinct from years of listening to shock jocks report the worst of human nature–even when those reports are statistically insignificant.

And really: I’ve been told that I’m a “good parent,” and I believe this characterizes the parenting of most of my peers and, indeed, most of the people I meet. At what point can you trust your kids to know what to do in potentially threatening situations? I’ve been giving the private parts lecture since my kids could talk, and the “don’t talk/touch/let anyone touch you” bathroom lecture since The Boy learned to pee standing up.

For the most part, I think children have an instinct about the unknown, or “strangers.” Recently, a report of attempted child-luring in a nearby neighborhood made the email rounds. The child in question was beckoned into a car, but refused and ran away, and was otherwise unharmed. Indeed, I can recall The Girl, aged 3, flashing her dimples and declaring “Nobody!” in response to an elderly gentleman’s inquiry about her name in a Kenosha diner. But the listserv hysteria allowed me to review some “what if” scenarios (that I had never thought of) with my kids, so the alert was helpful in that sense.

It’s not that I want to abdicate responsibility for my children, or leave them unsupervised for an “unreasonable” period of time. But I do want them to entertain themselves: when did supervision come to mean 24/7 entertainment?

About a year ago, I read a very long article in The Atlantic about the generation sometimes known as the millenials. What struck me most was a comment that Jeff Blume, a therapist quoted in the article, made. He said, “If we want our kids to grow up and be more independent, then we should prepare our kids to leave us every day.”

This is the philosophy behind Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids movement. You may remember Skenazy from an incident recounted in the New York Post in 2008: she let her 9-y/o figure out a way to get home from Bloomingdales by himself. Fortunately for me, for now, The Boy’s requests to roam are a bit closer to home. And they are good for him–both now and in the future. Skenazy’s movement has a day of action this weekend: May 19th is Take Your Kids to the Park (And Leave Them There) Day. Will you join us?

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