Hello! Tela here. Between national television appearances, raising my four-year-old, and uh, work, I’ve been a little busy. So I reached out to Dana to ask her to write a guest post. (Because I’m too busy to write a post myself, OBVI. I kid! I kid! I have some thoughts brewing and post a’coming. Promises.) Dana is a frequent reader/commenter on WMAG, I love her perspective on things, and I wanted to hear more. Today she writes about one of the many aspects of the all-important parent balancing act–“balancing freedom.”
I would not describe myself as a helicopter mother. My children attended a local church daycare from a young age, while I worked from my home office and traveled on business occasionally.
I let my daughter take the school bus. I rarely chaperone school trips, so that she can have adventures without me. When she started kindergarten, I requested she be in a class with kids that didn’t attend her preschool so she’d be forced to make new friends. And when she was five, I found her a field hockey day camp for ages five through eighteen. At drop-off, I dried her tears, told her she’d figure it out, and make some friends. And then I left—granted, I did hide in the bushes for the first half-hour to make sure she didn’t puke immediately. She was fine.
So a few years ago, when I heard about a blog and book called Free Range Kids, I thought it was terrific. I agree that kids need some freedom to explore. Kids need time to practice life skills, have fun, and experiment. They need to see that their parents are human beings, and not robots sent to hover over them with a damp Kleenex and a bottle of hand sanitizer. I love the idea of taking our kids to the park and leaving them there to play, but how do we prepare them? There is a lot of talk about giving our kids more freedom, but very little practical information about what the real risks are and how we can make sure our kids are ready to face them. It’s not as simple as opening the door and pushing them outside.
I enjoy my work. After some false starts, bad fits, and leaps of faith over the seven years since my daughter was born, I’ve found an arrangement that meets my goals as a mother and a professional woman. Both my husband and I have pretty flexible jobs, so we share the responsibilities of sick days and doctors appointments. Most of the time, it works really well.
The reality is, though, that even on the best days, my kids are out of my sight for most of their waking hours. This never bothered me because I built a network of trusted caregivers, friends and professionals. I hadn’t seen the need to have a lot of “the big talks” with my kids because I trusted everyone they’d come in contact with during the course of a day. When my mom took my daughter on a trip across county when she was five, I spent some time role playing “what to do if you get lost” scenarios and had talks about what happens at airports and how to stay safe. I thought that was good enough.
About a year ago, a few things happened in our community that changed everything. I’ll go into more detail about these events in a future post, but today I’d like to share the my two biggest takeaways from the aftermath:
- I really know very little about what my kids really do every day.
I don’t need to know about every playground squabble or minor drama, but I wrongly assumed my kids would tell me about anything out of the ordinary. I also assumed that if they faced a problem they would bring it up over dinner or at bedtime. For example, my daughter started eating lunch in the school cafeteria this year. She kept bringing home the small container of peaches I packed for her. I know she likes peaches, so I found this strange.
The second time it happened, I asked her about it. She shrugged and said she didn’t like them anymore. It took about a week of asking the question in different ways before she burst into tears and told me that she didn’t know where the trashcan was in the cafeteria. If she ate the peaches, she would have to throw away the empty cup. The solution was easy enough—bring home the trash or ask a teacher to help—but the incident floored me.
If this was something too embarrassing for her to tell me, what if she was being bullied or worse? And here is where the working mother questions herself—if I had more time, or wasn’t so tired at night or didn’t have that business trip—would we have more conversations? Would I somehow be more engaged without actually hovering?
- I had no idea how many people in my life had been mistreated as a child, and how few of them ever told their parents (or waited years before telling).
As the local stories in my community unfolded, and I shared the information with family and close friends, I was flabbergasted at how many people in my life were abused as children. They were abused by teachers, doctors, family members, family friends, neighbors. Some of it was close calls or just nuisance advances, but much of it was the worst you can imagine. I came to the realization that most of us probably have someone in their extended circle of trust that doesn’t belong there.
So while I can nod in agreement with the notion that letting my kids walk to the school bus is not putting them in danger of being taken by a stranger, I now know it isn’t strangers that are the problem. It’s the sweet neighbor with the cute dog who knows my kid is walking home every day at the same time and occasionally invites her in her home for a cookie. This person is someone I know well, someone I trust, but I’m just not so sure that trust beats reality. And again, if something did happen, does having my attention occasionally focused on something besides my children, such as my work, make it harder for me to see hidden signs or have the right conversations?
I’m a civil engineer, and I tend to think of life risks like maybe… a dam. An old dam might have a low risk of failure but if it did fail, there would be a high risk of damage to life and property. These risks must be balanced when deciding on action. Do we rebuild the dam? Relocate people who live downstream? Or simply keep an eye on it and educate the public the best we can?
I’m still in the evaluation phase when it comes to my kids. I love this TED talk from Brene Brown about that research shows that people who let themselves be vulnerable live more rich lives. I want that for myself and my children. I just have to figure out how.
Dana is a Civil Engineer and a mother of three. Dana tweets about work and life at @civil3diva and blogs about civil engineering software.