I am a definitely a member of the “let our kids have their childhoods back” choir that nature-loving Richard Louv and stranger-danger poo poo-er Lenore Skenazy have been preaching to. In contrast to the security guard who would not let my kids climb a tempting tree on public property because they might hurt themselves, I submit a wise mom’s reaction to her child’s own tree-fall injury: “What a great way to break your arm!”
But since the “Stranger-danger-is-all-but-a-figment-of-your-cowardly-imagination, you-freak!” message has recently gained some momentum, I’m sensing some imbalance in the movement. I’ve always rooted for the underdog, been a voice for the voiceless – and I’m feeling like normal, albeit slightly anxious parents of the world are taking a hit that they don’t deserve. And it’s time for this normal, slightly anxious parent to say something about it.
But first you must know how ironic it is that I am writing this. One of my chief complaints about my otherwise wonderful parents was their overprotection of me. I grew up with my mom shamelessly scaring me into obedience with detailed stories of every local kid who did something stupid (e.g. driving home from college in the middle of the night and falling asleep at the wheel) and went and got themselves killed. My dad said that it took everything in him not to lock me in my bedroom just to get me through my high school years safely. And when I was in college, my dad was almost killed by a drunk driver on an early Tuesday morning and I didn’t find out until I called home on Wednesday afternoon. My mom said she didn’t want to tell me until he got better. WHA?! What if he didn’t get better?! She just couldn’t bear the thought of me having to handle such a sad situation. Hello? You can’t hide the truth from me forever! She still justifies her decision to this day. In her mind love isn’t always logical.
Having grown up with this mild oppression, I swore I would hang on tightly to that grand parental pendulum and never be overprotective with my own progenies.
And now that I have 3 kids five and under, I have to say I’ve done a darn good job so far. I let them eat food off the floor. I chat it up with mom-friends at the park while only occasionally checking to see that my kids are still there. I encourage them to climb trees and jump off high objects. We have talked more with them about death, poverty, and unknowns than my parents ever did with me. I have let them hang out with seemingly trustworthy friends and acquaintances by themselves without demanding background checks. And despite my inclinations to homeschool, I have sent my daughter off to an “up and coming” public school in a very urban environment.
BUT now that I have 3 kids 5 and under, I also have to say that I have much more understanding of my parents’ overprotection of me. It was not always as ridiculous as I initially thought. I remember being overcome with indignation when they wouldn’t let me go on my senior spring break trip to Mexico. But when I heard all the sordid details from friends at school on Monday morning, I was glad I wasn’t one of those whose reputations (and whatever else) were now shot because of their drunken sexual escapades. And as a naturally absent-minded driver who got into 3 fender benders in 2 years, perhaps I was more likely to make the wise choice of buckling my seat belt because my mom employed fear persuasion tactics to get me to do so.
I still remember my husband and I going on our first camping trip with our almost 2-year-old daughter and some friends. We were setting up camp as she toddled from picnic table to tent to campfire in a trusting enough environment that I felt comfortable taking my eyes off of her for a few moments. When I looked up she had crossed the small road to go over to the bathroom just yards away and before I could get to her a huge truck passed right between us. As a result of that first hand and frightening experience, I make no apologies for putting the fear of God into my children regarding the potential danger of a child vs. automobile collision and I go to great lengths to teach them pedestrian safety. Like mother, like daughter I guess.
Every parent can relate to this shift in thinking. Something happens once you produce your own offspring that breathes to life the curse our folks placed on us: “Just wait until you’re a parent.” A once resilient commitment to giving your future kids the freedom you never had melts into a puddle of reactionary panic when you check to see if they’re still alive because they slept longer than usual. All of a sudden the fragility of life hits you like a 2×4 and it seems a wee bit harder to let them go than you once thought. We all know the kind of trouble a toddler can get into when you turn away for only a few moments. Everyone has experienced the adrenaline rush that accompanies the first blood-spewing injury, the choking fit, and the emergency room run. We all have the gray hairs produced by the broken bone, the missed curfew, and the just plain bad idea of letting teenagers operate motor vehicles. These small, yet real manifestations of fears and the impressions they make on us are a big part of what leads us to be afraid of the scarier, yet less common ones.
I agree that media, capitalism and everything else that is wrong with modern-day America has really pulled one over on us. The actual possibility of our child being kidnapped is not nearly as common as the fearful perception of it. But even if the statistical possibility is supposedly close to nil, the severe potential pain of it still keeps us from wanting to take that risk with our children. (Some people won’t even take that risk with their pet.) In this case, we each have to do our best to balance control and freedom, fear and reality. And that may look different for each of us.
And what if you are one of the few whose child is already a statistic? I have a dear friend whose precious 3 1/2-year-old daughter was molested in the next room over during her weekly Bible study at church. The loved and trusted (by kids and adults alike) 12-year-old babysitting all 5 of the young kids singled her out, took her into the corner and did something he had never done before. Though we should never be a slave to fear, for moms like these and those who have walked with them through such tragedies, it is legitimate and real. And more grace to us all if we are less than eager to toss our kids out into the world unaccompanied.
I propose that while we’re wrestling with letting our kids experience this necessary independence, it is possible for children to explore in the presence of a parent who doesn’t hover down their necks. Start when they’re young by letting them dress themselves, even if it (gasp!) doesn’t match. Allow for extra time on your walks so your kids are free to observe what’s around them. Encourage exploration through the world of reading. Let them be in charge of regular meal planning and preparation. Ask them to suggest your next vacation destination and play a central role in planning it. Let them wander around your local green space while you create a visible home base with a blanket and picnic meal. Devote lots of time to library learning. Spend long leisurely days at the beach, lake or pool whenever possible. Visit a local farm. And there’s nothing like creating art on a regular basis to free your child’s inner child.
So let’s stop debating the extremes. There are truly not that many crazy-from-all-angles parents out there. And if you run into one, stop judging. Perhaps they’re already a statistic themselves who will nobly go down swinging to make sure that their child never becomes one. Instead ease their fear by becoming someone they can trust with their precious ones.
And give the rest of us a break already. Let’s gently chide and lavishly encourage each other as we struggle sporadically, and understandably, with overprotecting. We need to hear truth and grace. And we also need the brave ones out there to not only boast about their metro-riding 9 year olds, but relate to the common struggle and share how to get passed it to a place of freedom for parent and child alike.
What is your experience with parental overprotection?