The Other Side of Fear Is Freedom

Jennifer Senior’s book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood touches upon the many stressors of present-day parenting. The fear about giving our children more freedom to be outside the home is high on the list of parental conundrums. She writes, “By the time children get big enough to venture out on their own—to the grocery store, to a friend’s house down the street—their parents feel strange about letting them go, believing the world to be a dangerous place.” She also puts forth the notion that anxiety about child safety may reflect our culture’s ambivalence toward women in the workplace: “Freedom to be ‘outside’ of our homes is the trend that began in the ’80s when women entered the workforce in record numbers, leaving the safety of the community in jeopardy as mothers’ watchful eyes were no longer keeping the children safe.”

Isn’t it ironic that this indecisiveness around giving children more freedom coincides with heavy does of criticisms about helicopter parenting? The news story about the Maryland couple whose children were temporarily held by police because they espouse “free–range” parenting caused tremendous controversy. These parents were investigated for child neglect and child endangerment because they permitted their then ten-year-old and six-year-old children to walk home alone for a mile one afternoon in December.

Due to media excesses and a new transparency in criminal records, there seems to be an increased paranoia about child abduction, even though crime statistics reveal that crimes against children have been steadily declining. I walked to and from school with my sister and friends until it was time to begin high school. The public high school was too far away to reach by foot. However, in stark contrast to my experience, none of my children ever walked to school at all. From preschool through high school, they were driven back and forth until they started to drive themselves. Parents are relentlessly criticized these days for doing too much for their children—for interfering with their ability to become responsible and independent. So, if our children are able to walk to school by themselves, how do we begin to assess their readiness to undertake such a leap of freedom and a leap of faith on our part?

Child development and behavior specialist, parent educator, and best-selling author Betsy Brown Braun is my colleague and the expert extraordinaire when it comes to providing direct and concrete parenting advice on a plethora of subjects. She is the author of two wonderful books: Just Tell Me What to Say and You’re Not the Boss of Me. Her website is also a treasure trove of excellent tips and advice for all sorts of issues.

Betsy reiterates that there is no one universal age when a child is ready to have a sleepover, get a cell phone, or walk to school. She prefaces her advice with the words “It depends.” Parents must assess each of their children in terms of maturity, readiness, and temperament to determine if she or he is capable of taking on

new emotional and physical responsibilities. She discusses at length how parents, not peers, must decide when it is time for more freedom. She also notes that parenting your first child is a very different experience the second time around. Having parenting practice under your belt helps you reduce your fears and trust your intuition.

Having two children of the same age makes it even more imperative to assess each one individually. If one twin is more ready than the other, perhaps it is wise to wait until both are ready to take this step together. Having one twin parenting the other and keeping the other on task can exacerbate aggression and resentment in a situation already fraught with unwelcome comparisons.

Children under the age of eight are not developmentally ready to walk to school alone. Appraising your child’s readiness to do so can depend upon how you judge your child’s ability against the criteria listed below:

  • Does he follow basic safely rules without being told?
  • Does she remember to buckle her seat belt without being reminded?
  • Does he look both ways before crossing the street?
  • Does she pay attention to traffic signs?
  • Does he stop at the curb before crossing?
  • Does she follow through by calling you when she arrives at a friend’s house?
  • Is he responsible at home, following through with household responsibilities and requests?

One must introduce this foray into freedom with baby steps and careful scrutiny. Parents need to be alert to the community around them to make sure the streets and neighborhoods are safe. Begin by walking behind your children to see how they are doing so you can point out difficulties or issues that need to be corrected. Tell your children that every once in a while you will follow them to make sure that the plan is going well. Betsy advises arranging “safe houses” along the route—making arrangements with neighbors that their home will be a place the children can go to if they sense any danger. If you want more detailed information, read the chapter entitled “Cultivating Independence” in You’re Not the Boss of Me.

We never stop worrying about our children’s safety, especially when we send them off to college. The best we can do is prepare them to take good care of themselves by modeling safety precautions when they are young so that they have the capacity to make healthy adult decisions.

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