I held onto the back of my 6-year-old’s shiny new bike and steadied her as she yelled, “Do NOT let go, Mom!” I knew she could ride her bike; she rode her old, smaller bike perfectly fine last summer. But it’s been two seasons and a size-up in bikes, so she was understandably nervous. But STILL, I knew she could do it. I knew that my hand was only holding her back.
So I glanced around to be sure no one saw me, and I let go. She wobbled, then fell. And promptly blamed it on me. And I blamed every helicopter parent out there who has created such an atmosphere of hovering that I’ve begun to question my own altitude over things as simple as riding a bike.
That same day my 8-year-old rode around the block for the first time by herself. At 8, around the block should be no big deal, but I’ve never let her do it before, and she was worried that she might not be able to – that she might not do it right. You cannot mess up going around a block, but she still worried because I worry. I don’t worry because I think she can’t do it, but because I feel like I’ll have spying parent eyes on me judging me for allowing my child to test the waters of independence.
Think I’m crazy? Tell that to the Maryland parents who were found responsible for “unsubstantiated child neglect” for letting their 10- and 8-year olds play outside and walk a mile home alone. Or the mom who got a visit from CPS for letting her kids play in a park that she could clearly see from her front door.
We seem to be perpetuating more hovering by continuing to hover. I feel neglectful if I let my kids play in the front yard alone. I feel like they have to be in eyesight when we’re outside the house, and I feel like it’s truly holding my kids back. My 8-year-old should feel confident enough to walk a block ahead of me without waiting for the impending, “That’s far enough… wait for me!” When we’re camping, my kids should be able to walk to the bathroom without me going with them.
My 8-year-old just learned how to use the microwave and heat her own hot chocolate. No, she’s not a slow learner, I’ve just always assumed I should do it for her – that the microwave is somehow too complicated for her. No wonder kids today deal with self-esteem issues! We don’t even trust them to punch a couple of buttons on a household appliance!
My fear in letting go is not that something will happen to them or that a challenge will be too hard for them, but that other parents will tattle on me. And tattling in Grown-up Land ends in a pretty serious time-out. (CPS!)
I feel like the hovering is so commonplace and so expected that I don’t even know what normal watchfulness looks like. Is a mile truly too far for a 10-year-old to walk? It sure wasn’t a generation ago. Is it really wrong for kids to play out of sight of their parents? I spent most of my childhood roaming the neighborhood in and out of friends’ houses – and my parents didn’t always know their parents.
We’ve all read those Facebook posts about what it was like in the good ol’ days of our childhoods. We played outside and only came home when the street lights turned on. We didn’t have to wear seat belts, and if your mom had a station wagon, you drew straws to see who would get stuck in the back. We rode in the bed of pickup trucks – even on the freeway! We bloodied our knees on the blacktop and bumped our heads on the metal jungle gyms… and we didn’t go to Urgent Care for every scrape and bruise. These things are glorified by our nostalgia, but we won’t let our own kids have even a taste of that kind of childhood freedom.
I’m not arguing that our kids should trade their life-saving booster seats for joyrides in the back of a pickup truck, but is it so wrong to let them walk to the park by themselves? To climb a tree without hearing “be careful, watch that branch, don’t fall!” To let go of the bike and let my child test her skills? Sure, she’ll wobble and fall… and then pick herself back up and try it again. She doesn’t want me to let go, but isn’t that part of my job? Knowing when to let go at the right time?
I owe it to my kids to trust them more. They’re smart and resourceful, they just don’t know it yet because they’ve never tested themselves. I hope I can strike a balance between protecting them and encouraging them to wander and explore the world. And I hope my fellow parents can trust me a little bit too. Let’s not jump to assume neglect when maybe we’re just trying to teach our kids some independence.