School starts this week. My boys have new skinny jeans and overpriced t-shirts for their first day. We delivered their school supplies during last week’s open house and we are already spending afternoons running between football practice and the dinner table. They feign disgust at going back, but they’re at least a little psyched to see their friends and show off their new haircuts. It is time: ten year old boys are not meant to stay home all day with their mothers.
Our summer was largely unscheduled. My boys did not attend summer camp or take swimming lessons. They played some tennis and made a few short trips to Colorado, but most days were long, slow versions of a cut-rate sit-com: squabbling punctuated by adventure and surprisingly manageable chaos. At least twice a day somebody claimed to be bored.
Unscheduled days at home would have been impossible a year ago. The boys needed pretty much constant direction and supervision (not to mention squabble intervention!), but this summer they started to spend some time at home alone. I only leave them for an hour or so, and in the age of cell phones I’m never really out of reach. The boys usually watch T.V. or play the Wii, but they’ve also surprised me by reading while I’m at the gym. An hour to workout or meet a friend for coffee feels like freedom – for all of us.
Once they’d mastered hanging out at home solo, I started sending them on errands on their bikes. They run to the grocery down the hill for milk and bread. Frank picked up his new soccer cleats at the Sports Stop down on Main Street. I encouraged them to bike to the ice cream stand at the city park. As long as they stuck together and let me know where they were going, they had their run of town. The boys don’t always love being on their own, but when I overheard them bragging to their friends, I knew I wasn’t the only one happy with the new arrangement.
So it surprised me that my new habit of running out while the kids sit like slugs on the couch scared some of my peers. My closest friends nod and validate my parenting – either out of agreement or loyalty (I’m good with either option). But some other acquaintances seem surprised, even shocked at my willingness to leave my boys unattended. They have expressed the usual concerns: accidents, fires, kidnappings. “Don’t you worry?” they mutter. One woman even said, “Are you sure that’s legal?”
It seems that those concerns are too often the norm. In July, a South Carolina mother was arrested for letting her nine-year old daughter play at the park alone. The girl had a cellphone and it was broad daylight, but the local police determined that the child was in danger and she was placed in the custody of child protective services. Debra Harrell’s case is complicated by class and race and culture, but public reaction was revelatory: the parents of America must contend with a culture of fear.
We fear that our kids might be kidnapped (extremely rare – kids are more likely to have a heart attack). We fear that they won’t be smart enough or athletic enough. We worry that they will be too dependent on us or too wrapped up in the virtual world. We are afraid to trust our gut instincts and our intuition. But the biggest fear is also the silliest: we fear the judgment of other parents. Who will leer down her nose at us? Who will disapprove of our kids, of us by extension? Who will turn her back on us?
This fear has become so central to parenting that we fail to recognize the real dangers in our children’s lives: grandiose expectations, bad food, concussions, a lack of comprehensive sex education, their tendency to text while moving, our tendency to forget about unconditional love. These are dangers we can do something about. We can examine our expectations, talk about food and sex, and model good behavior. We can give our kids practice – send them out on their own to experience natural consequences while making sure they have a soft place to land. It is a scary prospect. But I’m convinced it is what I signed up for; my job is to help them leave.
My boys will come home on the bus this afternoon. They will expect a snack and help with their homework. I will ask them about school and they will shrug and mumble something odd. We will rush out the door to football practice and eat dinner at 8:30. I’m glad they still need my help navigating their daily lives – I dread the day they don’t need me anymore. I know it is around the corner.