So, I read this article (op ed?) in The Atlantic. You should read it too, especially if you have kids, even more so if you tend towards being hypervigilant about what they do, when, and with whom.
Oh the guilt! The guilt! There’s the actual guilt, the guilt you assume you should feel, the observational guilt, and all sorts of other guilty feelings. There’s so much guilt that guilt starts to sound like a dumb word.
These are a few of the things that I regularly feel some measure of guilt about:
- Not spending enough time with my kids
- Spending so much time with my kids that they don’t know how to play on their own
- Being nervous when they want to do risky things at the playground
- Going camping with them, telling them to go explore and get dirty and do whatever, and have them look blankly at me like I’ve told them to go walk on the moon
- Not enough activities
- Too many structured activities
- Letting them out of my sight
- Not letting them out of my sight
Seriously. I can drive myself batty going around and around and around with these issues.
I remember being an elementary schooler, walking to the school bus stop alone (a little more than a quarter mile away, if I remember right), and waiting for the bus with a handful of boys (they were all boys!). I remember snowball fights. I remember them teaching me to play hockey (sort of). I remember one boy getting seriously injured because of a snowball (ice) fight.
I remember learning to roller blade with those boys, and going too fast down a really steep hill, and having to hobble home, legs scraped clean of skin.
I remember taking my dog for walks, all alone, to meet the boy I had a crush on so he and I could walk around the neighborhood together.
I remember being in middle school and biking for miles and miles with my best friend. Her brother’s bike had a radio, and we would listen to music while we biked everywhere. The library, the school, around her neighborhood.
I remember walking through the woods and getting lost. I also remember finding shortcuts to the nearby shopping center, and walking to the stores all alone.
I felt so grown up. I felt like I was taking risks, but I also felt confident about my ability to take on those risks.
I participated in organized sports. I remember family game nights. But I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. And it was okay.
In fact, the times that I actually had the worst, most traumatic experiences of my childhood were actually when I was being supervised by “trusted” adults.
But yet, all of that said, I can’t fathom the idea of letting my kids walk to school alone. Or go outside and explore the neighborhood unsupervised. Or walk to a store alone. Or even run far enough ahead on the walk home that I can’t see them.
Part of that is their ages, I’m sure. Oliver just turned eight. Hazel is six. I think (hope) it’s natural to be more hesitant with your oldest child. Part of it is that I really like walking to school to pick them up, and I really like hanging out with my kids. I’m trying to give them more freedom to experience “danger”—Oliver gets to use sharp knives at dinner, not just butter knives. And I let him help me cut vegetables. I let Hazel cross the street unsupervised (I was feeding the baby—I didn’t even watch her out the window!). I sometimes let Oliver stay in the car when I’m running errands (I hope that’s legal).
So, why is our entire society so bent on keeping kids carefully under wraps? I mean, obviously part of it is fear driven—in our age of the 24 hour news cycle, one Horrible Thing happening to one child affects all of us for days or weeks at a time. It feels more prevalent than it is. It’s still a Horrible Thing, but one Horrible Thing happening to someone else, somewhere else makes us hug our children so tightly that they can’t breathe, and we don’t realize that our children are more likely to suffocate than suffer from said Horrible Thing.
I wonder if part of it is also control. We can’t control if our kid gets cancer, or is the loser at school who gets picked on. We can’t control if they will be autistic, or bad at sports, or if they will experience Horrible Thing. But we take on the illusion of control by not letting them out of sight. By keeping them close. By making sure their activities are monitored at all times. By not letting them lose. We can keep them from having their feelings hurt, their bones and hearts broken, and ever having to deal with whatever it was that made our own childhood insufferable.
Except, of course, we can’t control all those things. And at what cost do we keep the others under control?
Kullervo and I were heartbroken (me) and furious (Kullervo) when we took the kids camping and while we (Kullervo) set up camp, we told the kids to go explore the campsite. Find bugs. Dig a hole. Have an adventure.
They didn’t know how.
WHAT HAVE WE DONE????
I don’t worry too much about my kids getting hurt, honestly. The thing that makes me cringe is fingers getting squashed in doors, but that’s small and just as likely to happen regardless of supervision. I have a fear of falling, so when Henry climbs really high on a playground, it makes my stomach lurch. My stomach reacts that way to circus performers on the high wire, too, I might add. I try not to let it affect my kids—I try really hard to look away and let them take those risks. (Although thinking about that makes me also fear the judgmental looks from other people should my kids fall off the playground equipment.)
So, aside from fear and control, there is the other issue—why do we think we should spend all of our time with our kids? There’s the guilt factor. Obviously, we should want to spend all our spare time with our kids, right? But why do we think that? I don’t want to spend all of my time with anybody—I’m an introvert and really want to put my head in the sand and avoid all y’all folks and hope you go away and leave me alone.
My kids are fantastic. I love spending time with them. I love hearing their ideas—they’re smart and funny and creative and silly, and they help me be smart and funny and creative and silly too. I love playing games and reading with them. I love going on hikes and yelling at them to ENJOY NATURE DAMMIT. And their school day is SO LONG, and their bedtime is SO EARLY, so I actually don’t get a lot of time to just BE with my kids. We certainly can’t do all the things together that I want to do. But I also can’t be on all day long.
And they’re still kids—which means that a lot of the things they want to do aren’t interesting and a lot of their jokes aren’t funny (to grown ups). Cases in point—Hazel just told me two new jokes today:
Get me a beer.
Interrupting table who?
EAT YOUR DINNER.
Not funny. At all. But yet Oliver and Hazel are currently in our basement cracking each other up with their horrible jokes. Kids need other kids around because kids get that stuff. And they need time away from adults to be able to explore all of the horrible jokes they want without annoying anybody.
I’ve also noticed how much my kids gain from me severely restricting screen time. They had a half day of school today, and came home and immediately wanted to watch television. I said no. They wanted to use the iPad. I said no. I said they were being too loud (Henry had just gone down to nap), so I sent them to the basement. They played truth or dare. They told unfunny jokes. Now they are playing pretend. All of which they would have missed out on if they had had the television on. I’ve watched them take their boredom and turn it into creativity. I’ve seen them build towers of milk crates (and climb them, and fall down). I’ve seen them come up with weird games to play in the car on long drives because they don’t have a television in the car.
I want my kids to be kids. I want to hang out with them, I want to spend time with them, teach them what they need to learn. But perhaps I need to remember—perhaps we all need to remember—that part of teaching kids, part of raising them, is giving them opportunity to fail and opportunity to take risks and mess up. It’s certainly easier to help them learn to make good decisions when they’re younger than when they are older and are taking on riskier behavior. If they are confident that they can take risks, if they know that they can make good decisions without parental supervision, maybe when they are being offered cigarettes or drugs or alcohol, or pressured to have sex, they’ll be able to say no because they will know their limits and they won’t need to take those risks in order to feel like they are more grown up. Maybe the high they get from living their lives fully will outweigh the high they would get from using drugs.
So, all that said, what do I do to implement this? There are definitely downsides to kids playing unsupervised—oftentimes, other people’s kids are rotten. Or is a moderate level of unchecked bullying okay, because it helps our kids develop a thicker skin? Is the social hierarchy of unsupervised kids harmful, or does it teach kids negotiation skills, political skills, and other skills that (sorry to say it) will be necessary in the work environment when they get older? And with other parents helicoptering their kids constantly, is it possible to avoid the guilt of giving my kids more freedom (obviously they love their kids more than I do because otherwise I would want to be with them all the time, right?)? And the guilt of being afraid of the judgment of said parents?
How much freedom do you give your kids? When do you start giving them more freedom, and what freedoms do you allow?