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.