I read Lenore Skenazy’s blog Free Range Kids for the first time last month. Seriously, I cannot believe that I missed last year’s media furore when she let her then 9 year old son ride the New York subway home alone – but then again, I’m a working mom and I admit, there are days (weeks even) when don’t have time to either read the newspaper or listen to NPR.
At any rate, when I found Skenazy’s blog , I was excited. I mean truly, jumping-up-and-down excited. I’ve lived my parenting life in the U.S. where the shadow of being an outsider butts into my interactions with the moms of my children’s friends all too frequently. It’s not something that keeps me awake at night, but it’s an annoyance I struggle with since, like any mom, I appreciate that my kids want to fit in and my “no, I don’t like peanut butter and jelly” oddities are a distraction they’d rather not have to deal with and I’d rather not saddle upon them. On Free Range Kids I’ve found a group of people who, at least on one parental dimension (i.e. freedom and independence in childhood), think as I do and act as I do.
I grew up in a small Irish town. I don’t remember ever locking the door or turning on a house alarm (in fact, we didn’t have one). I do know that I and my younger siblings walked everywhere and were pretty darn self-sufficient from a very early age. Such were the practicalities of my life. We didn’t have scheduled playdates instead our friends just dropped by. We were regularly told to “go outside and don’t come back until…” (at which point I would usually take a book and go read in the garden).
Growing up in Seattle, my children have had a very different experience and frankly I have failed miserably at managing their social calendar. It’s like meal planning. Really, I want someone to show up at my house daily with an expertly prepared repast. Instead, I avoid thinking about dinner until I have to and then I regret not having planned in advance. I have the best of intentions in terms of scheduling playdates for both of my children, but by the time I remember to call it’s too late and Johnny or Jane or Jim is already doing something else. The net result of this is that I have two pleasant, but not very socially adept children. They don’t even realize it.
However, when it comes to travel, I think my kids are better prepared than most of their peers. This may seem counter-intuitive. I mean, you might think that a parent would be more rather than less protective of a child when traveling. And it’s true, I was – with my first child. He’s challenging in many ways, but not when we travel. He’ll sit by me in an airport and bemoan the fact that he’s leaving Seattle again, but he’s never wandered – unlike my younger son. I’ve never been in such good shape as I was the year BigB (the younger guy) turned two. I chased him everywhere we went. He doesn’t run any more, but he does have a streak of independence a mile wide and the self-confidence to pick himself up and go follow his interests -wherever we are. He’s not yet NINE people!
BigB has disappeared out of sight multiple times: in big cities and small towns, in airports and shopping malls, in the U.S. and in random other countries we’ve visited. When he was two, as we walked down a Parisian street, he decided he was hungry and found himself a cafe – we found him pretty quickly. At four, he insisted on riding the (admittedly beginner) ski lift with his brother but without parents. At six, with much cajoling, my older son (the cautious one) proudly ordered his own glace (ice cream) in a French cafe – while we waited outside. At the same age, my younger son explored the shops around the town square in Albufeira, Portugal while his dad and I ate lunch. I’d be lying if I said that I was totally calm every time he disappeared into a store but each time he reappeared, he confidently waved to us and ran to the next set of trinkets without a care in the world.
When we were in Rome last year, rather than insist that my boys sit quietly in a restaurant while their Dad and I finished dinner, they ran off to explore the Piazza Del Parthenon. With lights and music and street hawkers on every corner they were in kid heaven. They came looking for us before we had even left the restaurant. As I walked through the square after dinner, a Bangladeshi street hawker stopped me an congratulated me on my son’s bargaining skills (who knew?).
This may sound like my parenting is a little too “hands-off”, negligent even. That would be an incorrect assumption. We’ve developed a strategy which we use when we’re exploring a new place. We always carry cell phones and require that our children know the numbers – thankfully we both have phones which we can bring with us outside the U.S. and we subscribe to AT&T’s plan which allows us to make calls at reduced rates while traveling. We agree on a meeting place or a place where Mom and Dad will wait while the children explore. We insist that they stick together – and then we hope that they don’t have a sibling quarrel and part ways. So far that hasn’t happened.
All children are individuals and some are born with a desire to explore. As Lenore Skenazy suggests, it is worse to constrain a child like that than to let him (safely) roam. My son craves more and greater independence every day. My parenting decision was to recognize where my children’s respective personalities sit along the spectrum of independence and to provide the individual support needed – and then to encourage each of them to spread his wings – in whatever form that takes – based on the relevant individual starting point.
And if you travel, the opportunities to do so are endless.
Current Giveaways: Win a GoGoBabyz Infant Cruizer