Sunday, April 06, 2008

Ball and Chain

That's a great article by a mom who let her 9 year-old ride the subway home alone, and the outraged and aghast reactions she has received as a result. I think she's absolutely right, and I hope I'm woman enough when Bambina is of age to give her the gift of independence and a sense of accomplishment in achieving small steps by herself. I know it will be hard for me, but I also know that raising a kid is not supposed to be about me, no matter how much I can apparently yammer on about it on this here blog....

I remember as a kid in Scotland walking home about a mile and a half from the Brownies with my sister at 6:30 or 7pm--by ourselves. If you're familiar with Scotland, that means "mostly in the dark" (until it stays light till 11pm in the summer). Yeah, you could argue that those were "different times" and that was a small town or whatever. But was it really? Aren't there towns right here and right now whose conditions mirror those of my old town? And aren't we almost more aware of all the terrible things that could happen? So why are we not feeling any safer? Why are we *less* willing to send our kids out into the world when we are perhaps more forewarned and forearmed than ever?

Perhaps because of the fear that accompanies such forewarning. An article in the Boston Globe magazine a few weeks back discussed child kidnapping: "Of the 797,500 children younger than 18 reported 1999, the last year for which data is available, the vast majority were classified as abductions or temporarily missing with a benign explanation. Only an estimated 115 were the victims of what experts call 'stereotypical' kidnappings, defined as crimes perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance in which a child is transported 50 miles or more, detained overnight, held for ransom, taken with the intent of being kept permanently, or killed."

Think about that. One hundred and fifteen. Now, don't misunderstand. There is no pain I can refuse to allow myself to imagine (believe me) like that of a parent whose child has gone missing. I can't even write a sentence about it beyond that, so horrifying is the thought to me, and so heartfelt are my feelings for those parents whose kids are either found after terrible abuse or never found at all. But is refusing to allow my kid on the subway alone or to walk home alone or to do something--anything--without me or an adult hovering nearby really going to keep her safe? I suppose it might. But will it also allow me to do my job as a parent, which is to prepare my child for life? It simply can't. I will not always be around at critical decision points in Bambina's life; I will not be in the car on her date, I will not be in her dorm room at college, I will not be there as she walks to her job or her house. I will not be there to manage her drinking, studying, socializing or any aspect of her life. My only presence in those moments will be in the intangibles, in the deep wells of her brain and her heart and her soul, in those little (I hope) flickers of confidence and intelligence and self-efficacy and resilience that I pray every day I'm helping to nurture. And the only way I know to nurture them is to help her see them for herself, hopefully show by example how to value them and how to strengthen them, and then let her loose as her development allows to find herself delighted at all she can do all by herself.

At the same time, I do believe that parental fear is a good thing. Even after all the drama in my life the past few years and my resulting sense of "Bring it. It can't be worse than thinking you're going to die or having a transplant...," parental fear is the one thing that still has the power to wake me up in a cold, cold sweat from which I can get no quick relief. The protective instinct is a powerful and undeniable force for good between a parent and child. But if I forbid her from riding the subway if she begs me to at 9, when I myself did stuff like that as a kid and benefited from it, what am I telling her? Contrary to what I may think, I'm not saying, "I love you so much that I can't let you take this risk." (Which is, of course, a completely valid and reasonable thing to say, and which I currently say a lot). But in this particular case, I'd really be saying, "I love my fear too much to let you go conquer yours."

In this day and age, if we can be honest about the subway, a better bet for keeping your kid safe is actually physically putting them on the damn 6 Northbound (with their friends [all of whom you know and whose parents you all know])---and keeping them away from all the pedophiles online.

1 comment:

Ken said...

I'll admit to being captured by the fear. In first grade I walked home from school in this neighborhood. The school I went to and the school Evan goes for first grade are only a few suburban blocks apart, and his walk home would be roughly half as long as mine. But I wouldn't dream of letting him do it.