This Saturday is the Fourth of July, a day in which we'll mark our country's 233 years of independence from Great Britain. Celebrate it by giving your kid a little freedom.
Take it from this recovering hover mom who still has trouble cutting the cord. I know it's not easy with Nancy Grace screaming out of the TV about the disappeared child du jour, but teaching your son or daughter to be independent is the best gift you can give.
In this age of babyproofed homes, nanny cams and child leashes, it's rare to see a child riding her bike alone, let alone visiting a restaurant bathroom solo. But at what price are we letting our parental Fear Factor strangle our children's lives? At what point does mothering turn into smothering?
In The New York Times Magazine earlier this month, a story about best-selling author Jodi Picoult marvels at her successful "children-in-peril" literary genre. We the public seem to love these stories about terrible things that trip up otherwise perfect families. The children in Picoult's books are maimed, gunned down, killed in accidents, molested, abducted, bullied and traumatized. A movie based on Picoult's 2004 book, My Sister's Keeper, is currently in theaters and promises to wrench every tear from your body with the heartbreaking story of a family whose second child is diagnosed with leukemia.
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Why do we wallow in such misery, like lumbering pigs drawn to mud so evil and deep it threatens to drown us? This is familiar territory for any mother, not because we're all victims of tragedies, but because we've imagined such worst-case scenarios over and over again. Parenthood is a perpetual state of terror. Somebody once told me, "It's your job to worry. You're a mom." This was the part of parenting I didn't anticipate: the acute fear of losing my kids.
But let's look at the facts: Despite hundreds of thousands of children reported missing in any given year, the Department of Justice says only about 200 to 300 are kidnappings in which children are taken, transported to another location and killed. The vast majority are family abductions. In other words, you'd have to leave your child on the front porch for longer than Bernie Madoff's prison sentence before she stands a chance of being abducted.
Feel better? Me neither. My brain tells me not to worry when my daughter walks down my street alone to visit a neighbor. But my heart? It doesn't start beating again until I know she's made it there safe and sound.
There's no quieting that fear, but we can keep from passing it on to our kids. Think about it. What a horrible way to grow up, in constant dread of the unlikely. Most of us lived carefree childhoods where we roamed on bikes or on foot for hours without parental supervision. We learned to get ourselves out of binds, win and lose at street kickball, and find our way home in time for dinner. Why are we denying our kids the same character-building – not to mention FUN – experiences? Do we really want our children to grow up thinking that most unfamiliar adults are predators? That stranger rhymes with danger?
I know one mom's idea of independence is another mom's version of child abuse. We all have different standards. Remember Lenore Skenazy? She was the New York mom who made headlines last year after she blogged about allowing her 9-year-old son to ride alone on the subway. She was called "America's Worst Mom" in some circles, but she also sparked a mini-revolution among parents who think we're missing the boat when it comes to teaching kids good decision-making skills and how to live independently. Skenazy has written a new book, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry. She warns that we're all going to have neurotic adult children on our hands if we continue to keep them close and out of harm's way – and those grown kids probably won't want us around much when they finally do escape.
It's time to let the leash loose. I'm not talking about going AWOL as a parent or abandoning your kid on the subway on your next trip to New York. For starters, let's just use common sense and let our children do at least one age-appropriate independent thing a week. Allow him or her to:
· Go alone to a PG13 movie
· Sleep over a friend's house
· Walk to the library
· Ride a bike to a neighbor's house
· Go to the bathroom alone in a restaurant
· Make his or her own lunch, even if it involves the stove or a sharp knife
· Cross a parking lot alone
· Climb a tree without supervision
What independent act will you grant your child this summer?