A couple in Maryland, US, find themselves on the ropes and hauled to Child Protective Services for letting their kids, 10 and six, walk back unattended from parks, once from a distance of a mile away earlier this year. To take the children back home, after they had spent five hours in the custody of police, the Meitivs had to sign a safety plan that prohibits them from leaving their children unattended. At least one case of “neglect” has been dropped against them since.
The Meitivs can, at least, cite the falling crime rates in the US (lower than the ’70s, or back when today’s parents were “freer” kids themselves) for trying to teach their kids “independence”. I have no excuse.
So, the other day when my 10-year-old daughter asked to be allowed to walk alone to the neighbourhood badminton court, I didn’t know what to say.
The court is 20 steps across a colony road and 5 minutes through a park away. Each of those steps weighed on my mind. The cars parked on the side that may back unexpectedly. The corners from which a vehicle may come swerving suddenly. The park and one isolated stretch even among the bustling chatter of children, grandparents and people taking their evening walk. Not to mention all those people who just hang around always.
I weighed one against the other and finally decided it was a safe enough minefield for her to tackle. On her own. With the adults I know keeping a general watch. Most of us know what the latter is.
I crossed one such bridge with my son last year when he turned 14. I won’t deny that his insistence on keeping a distance of two feet between him and me in public drove it to an extent. Plus, my daughter’s bus arrived before his, the afternoons were just too hot and sometimes there weren’t enough adults around to act as escorts. All of it effectively took the decision out of our hands. So now he gets off the school bus, crosses a busy road and walks home, all by himself.
Since we crossed that bridge, he has ventured out further and longer alone, and later into the evening, on his own.
Does the thought of what may happen not weigh on my mind? It does. Every time. I just try not to think about it.
Maryland law prohibits children younger than eight from being left unattended in a dwelling or car but makes no reference to outdoors. A person must be at least 13 years old to supervise a child younger than eight. Clearly, they have no idea what a 13 and eight-year-old can get up to, either together, or taking on each other. There is only one losing party here, and you know which one that is.
The world has become smaller, they say, but for whom? Every time I check, its distances have widened. What most of us do daily is take leaps of faith. That the unknown person headed your way is, perhaps, just like you.
Most days are good days, but bad days can come out of nowhere. We pray for our kids not to have any but with or without us, they will get there. Can we protect them? To an extent. Can we prevent them? For how long? Can we allow them to make mistakes? Whenever? And will those mistakes prove too costly? Hopefully not.
Fear is an all-consuming feeling that you have to shake off. Should love be like that too? All you can really do is give advice, take precautions and then bank on that general watch.
Danielle Meitiv said she and her husband give parenting a lot of thought. “Parenthood is an exercise in risk management. Every day, we decide: ‘Are we going to let our kids play football? Are we going to let them do a sleepover? Are we going to let them climb a tree?’ We’re not saying parents should abandon all caution. We’re saying parents should pay attention to risks that are dangerous and likely to happen.”
Danielle is a climate-science consultant, her husband Alexander a physicist at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.
In the US, they even have a term for children like the Meitivs’, “free-range kids”, around since 2008 when New York journalist Lenore Skenazy got herself the tag “The World’s Worst Mom” for writing
Why I Let My 9-year-old Ride the Subway Alone. Skenazy managed to turn her plight into a reality TV show on Discovery and is now called for lectures around the world. Her son, last checked, was a healthy 15-year-old.
None of that should surprise us, really. Remember how heartbreaking it is when your infant wraps her little finger around your hand. It’s just as heartwarming when she lets it go for the first time to take those baby steps.
As your children grow up, you can count their years and yours in all that you let go. The hair. The talk. The friends. The clothes. The closet. The phone conversation. The fast-slipping time.
In a semi-autobiographical film made by a 25-year-old Canadian, a son going through a troublesome phase tells his mother, “You must hate me”. “Son, let me tell you how it is,” she says. “As time goes, you will love me less and less and I will love you more and more. And that’s just how things are.”
Your 25-year-old or the one on her way there knows that too. And chances are she is shaking her head in exasperation.
The story appeared in print with the headline Leaps of Faith