So when you find your infant daughter sitting in an ice
chest of cold water, you tend to do some soul-searching about the kind of
parent you want to be.
And I would like to be the kind of parent whose daughter
doesn’t drown in an esky while I’m drunk dancing in the kitchen.
My epic mistake is, in my mind, unforgivable because I was
so thoroughly inebriated and having such a riotously good time that I was
completely unaware of what my one-year-old daughter was doing. This is an absolute
aberration for me, something I never do (since becoming a mum) but that defense
would not have made my child any less dead if the worst had happened.
We were at the house of close friends. There were six adults,
seven children (ranging in age from 1 – 6 years old) and when we get together,
there is very much the vibe of collective parenting, meaning that we are all
watching the kids. The adults might enjoy a beverage, the children may or may
not have pants on – you know, it’s bohemian. The knowledge that there are six
pairs of eyes watching over the kids allows us all to relax a bit. We all take turns putting out the various
kid-related fires as they present themselves – tears, hunger, where are my pants? etc. Though we would
hardly leave the children home alone, at social gatherings such as this one the
supervision is loose.
But even if I removed the alcohol from the situation, I’m
left with the realisation that this could still have happened. Children are
quick and even a momentary lapse in supervision can be the perfect amount of
time for disaster to strike.
So is it okay to let your guard down and parent from afar
Excluding Harlow from the scenario because she is still just
a baby and really does require constant supervision, my first instinct is to
say yes. This is what people do. It’s what my parents did when I was little –
and we lived in the country where we were left to roam paddocks and trip along
the muddy banks of creeks without an adult in sight. I don’t want to be a
helicopter parent and I know my kids don’t want me to be one either. Giving
children some freedom and independence is good and necessary for their
development. And free range parenting sounds so wholesome, doesn’t it? It
conjures the image of ruddy-cheeked kids flushed with outdoorsy goodness. But
as they get older, the boundaries of that range will widen and I start to
wonder just how free I want my kids to be.
Since before we had kids, Bren and I have argued about riding
bikes on the street. I maintain that it’s too dangerous. Bren says it’s an
essential part of being a kid. And it’s not that I disagree with him. It’s just
that I don’t want to live with the consequences of something going wrong.
Six months back, we were at a play centre. The warehouse
space is dominated by a massive play structure of varying levels and once your
child enters the labyrinth, it’s impossible to keep them in sight at all times.
But you’re in an enclosed space with child-proof entry and exit gates that can
only be opened by staff pressing a button. The sprawling set-up means that
while you can’t always ‘see’ your child, it should be impossible for them to
get out of the building. And yet, I spent a harrowing five minutes searching
for Ziggy, climbing up foam steps into the maze of the play structure, frantically
calling his name, scanning each little face I passed. He was nowhere. I checked
the toilets. Not there. I checked the baby section. No Ziggy. I thought my
heart was going to come right out of my chest. My ears were filled with the
sound of rushing blood and the increasingly more shrill sound of my own voice
as I pleaded for Ziggy to answer me. Finally I thought to check the disabled
toilet and standing within, unable to turn the handle from the inside, was the
glorious figure of my sobbing son. I cursed myself for ever taking my eyes off
him – despite the fact that play centres are designed to allow you to relax
your vigilance just a little.
It did not help that this incident came in the wake of the
news that a little girl had been indecently assaulted in the toilets of the
very same play centre some months before. The message had been circulating for
parents to always accompany their children to the toilet. For me, the message
that permeated was that even safe places are not safe. There are no safe places.
And I guess this is true on some level. It only takes a
chance encounter with someone who intends you harm for a previous sanctuary to
become dangerous. People are dangerous. And they’re everywhere. A car is only safe
so long as you’re not in an accident. But there are no guarantees. The ways in
which harm could come to our children is too long and awful to consider. And
this is the world we must live in.
Which is perhaps the key. What constitutes living? Really living? There are people whose
fear so completely paralyses them that they cannot leave the confines of their
home. Of course, agoraphobia is a recognised anxiety disorder but when you have
kids, it’s easy to see how unfounded fears can cause you to alter your normal
ways of existing. Once a tiny person comes into your life, the responsibility
of keeping them safe in an ever more hostile world feels overwhelming. You
would do anything to keep them safe. But at what point does the quest to keep
them from being hurt actually become the very thing that damages them most?
Somewhere between terrifying myself with all the very worst things that could happen and throwing my kid directly into the shark tank to see if he can swim, there must be a balance.
I don’t shadow
my children’s every step. I don’t fall apart if they scrape their knee. I won’t
be dissuading the kids from sports I deem unsafe. Every little bump or bruise
is not evidence of my shitty parenting but the mark of a childhood lived. And
sometimes despite every measure to keep them safe, our kids will stumble. I could completely remove them from every person or thing that
could hurt them but then what would they be left with? I understand that the
person I am today has been shaped far more by the painful moments than those
that were easy. Challenges, defeats, arguments and sadness, in their wake, have
built determination, resilience, conviction and empathy.
Last Saturday was a lesson for me. Harlow was okay but she
might not have been. I still have quite some time until she can play outside of
my watchful eye. For the other two, there are parameters within which they must
be given freedom to explore and learn. Knowing where to set those parameters
remains the challenge. And I reserve the right to keep them a bit tighter while
they're still so little. I can’t stop them from growing up but a car going
too fast on a suburban street sure as hell can.
Yeah, I'm going to need more time to think about the bike thing….
If you're interested in the topic, I really liked this article, Benefits of Free-Range Parenting.
Holy cow … that’s a heartstopper moment. And they do happen so quickly and quietly. I’m just glad she had some fun but pity it had to come at the expense of your nerves.
A lot of your thoughts are familiar to me. It’s not really okay for kids to roam around unsupervised for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. Somehow you find the balance as they grow but I am realising it is a constantly changing thing.
W is always asking me when he can catch a bus to school on his own. I know I could put W on a bus and he would get out at the other end and walk into school safely. I think when he is around nine or ten, I will let him do that unaccompanied. But he will have his little brother with him and that little brother has shown a complete disregard for danger.
I don’t want W to be responsible for him so this is my sticking point. Not sure how I will deal with it when that time comes.
Shit a brick. I bet you did. You poor soul. It’s easy to be hard on ourselves but we too need to take a moment, have a break, let your hair down, do some living, sometimes. Close calls are there to remind us of our role and how precious and vulnerable these little humans are, I reckon. Something simular has happened to me too. It’s scary as hell.
How free range is something that I grapple with too. How protective should I be? What level am I comfortable with? What level is right for the type of child I want to create? Is it enough? Too much? It’s an ongoing conundrum. Parenting conundrums are the suckiest. There’s never a definiate answer. You just need to know this: You’re a GREAT mother and you will always do your best and that is all that you can promise your children and yourself xxx
Total heartstopper. A sobering moment indeed, pardon the pun.
You make an excellent point that how much freedom you give a child really needs to be dependent on the individual child, their level of maturity and so on. And it isn’t necessarily fair to make an older sibling responsible, is it?
After the party last week, I asked Luca the next day if he had seen what happened with Harlow and he said yes. I asked him why he didn’t stop it or at the very least, come and get me when his sister was crying but I quickly realised I was being completely unfair. He’s five! And though he is really excellent with his little sister and will often come and get me if he thinks she is playing with something she shouldn’t be (small and chokey things, for instance), it is not his job to look after her.
Kids need freedom in order to learn self-regulation but it’s incredibly hard to loosen the hold, isn’t it? The ‘what-ifs’ are anxious-making.
Yep, I will punish myself for just as long as I humanly can for that one, I think. Can’t help it. Just a really stupid thing to have let happen. I got lucky, that’s all I can say.
Yep, parenting conundrums are the suckiest. Because they require us to make decisions on behalf of someone else and that’s a huge responsibility and actually, I am still only fifteen in my head….
Sigh. I know I will almost certainly mess all three kids up to some degree but yes, they should know I did my very best. Except on the days when I was really drunk….
How scary! So glad it was OK. My nephew was found face down in a swimming pool, while there were tonnes of adults around. Thank GOD he was OK too.
We have this conversation frequently in our house, and my husband worries about every possible danger – he has screwed bookcases onto the wall for fear of them falling – whereas I am on the other end of the spectrum. He does influence me though and I find I often have horror visions of the type of things that couple happen if I let my guard down. Fortunately one daughter is very sensible and the other is not yet mobile. I did find baby chewing an electric cord for the fish tank – now that could have gone horribly wrong!
I have a new blog Angie, http://mylittlesunshinehouse.com if you have time to have a squiz. Zanni x
I was just thinking about this yesterday, because Connor was in the front yard for a bit playing with the bubble machine. He was *right* outside our door and yet I was feeling the need to peek out every 4 minutes to make sure I could see him.
I really think things aren’t the same as when we were kids. I’m not comfortable with the idea of my kids riding their bikes all over the place either, even though I did it as a kid. I’m not even comfortable with him being in my own front yard! It sucks, but I don’t know what the answer is.
Sheesh! I cannot imagine. Moments like that are bound to make you stop and rethink your stance on freedom and boundaries. Close calls like that are scary shit – no matter what the circumstances.
I love the theory behind free-range parenting but I don’t think I could ever go hard-core all the way. We are fortunate that our apartment complex is (supposedly) secure, and there are times when I let F roam around with some of her neighbourhood buddies on their bikes (it’s strictly pedestrian because parking is underground) but I can never shake the unease, despite my brain telling me that little taste of freedom and independence is good for her.
When we move to Seattle, F will qualify for the school bus in our new neighbourhood. The idea of waiting at the bus stop with her, seeing her get on, and being at the bus stop again for when she gets back in the afternoon… it freaks me out a little. She’ll be 7 but it still feels so young. I’ll be walking or driving her until I’m comfortable that she knows her new school environment well, but she’s excited at the thought of riding one of those yellow buses every day. I know I’m not ready though…