June 6, 2013
The mister was standing at the window, holding binoculars to his eyes like a ship’s captain. I was pacing to and from the window wanting to look but not wanting to be seen. We had sent our two older children, ages 6 and 4, on their first unaccompanied errand a block away to the mailbox and we were in the middle of an embarrassing but unconscious display of helicopter parenting.
How had it come to this?
Before the girls left on their mailbox mission, the mister barked at them, “No running!”
His greatest fear isn’t that our babies will be snatched by a stranger but instead will be hit by a neighbour’s car travelling too fast on the narrow but well-travelled street. I tested their little memories on the rules of the road.
“Don’t run,” the eldest said, acknowledging she’d heard her dad’s command.
Dissatisfied, I unfurled a more complete list of rules: “Stay together always, no matter what. Look both ways and cross at all our usual spots. And watch out for cars driving too fast.” With murmurs of patronizing agreement and two sets of eye rolls, they left.
Ask anyone who was a kid in the 1980s and you’ll hear a chorus of comparisons between our freedoms then and our children’s freedoms now. Back in the good ol’ days, we would ride home from the dump in the box of the pick-up truck, eat candy at will, and explore alleyways until the street lights came on.
When I was four I was riding my bicycle to the park and around our neighbourhood unaccompanied. I wasn’t wearing a bicycle helmet. My parents weren’t standing at the window. The rule of the road was stay out of trouble.
Thirty years later, my girls — whom I trust will listen to and follow my instructions — can’t go 100 feet from the house without not one but two parents hovering stealthily in the shadows.
My peers and elders have offered their input on how it has come to this. Media is more focused on news stories of kidnappings and other crimes against children, we aren’t as connected in our neighbourhoods, or maybe we have a neanderthal instinct to protect our diminishing number of offspring so as to preserve our own livelihood.
Another incisive observation was by a mother who raised her children in a bedroom community that was home to about 40 families with 98 children among them. She thinks a big difference between parenting in the 1970s and now is perspective. Many parents and caregivers today base their decisions on the worst possible outcome: a child walking alone on the street is at risk of abduction, or an underage child riding in the vehicle’s front passenger seat is inviting an accident.
Miraculously, the girls made it home safely from that three-minute walk to the mailbox. I was ashamed enough by our display that I have since taken this mother’s good advice. I have tried to stop myself from assuming the worst in my children’s every movement (there is raw egg in that cookie dough; will she die of salmonella if she licks the beater?) and have taken a more realistic perspective (walk yourself home from the beach if you’re hungry, and while you’re at it, make me a sandwich too).
In those moments when I push crazy thoughts aside, my children are happier because they feel empowered, and I am happier because I’m not driving myself insane with a list of horrific and unlikely what ifs.
More importantly, someone else is making my sandwich, which is the whole point of having kids, isn’t it?