A friend of mine once told me that I would not know true terror until I had had a kid. And he didn’t mean that children were terrible or terrifying– he was talking about the sense of dread one carries around being responsible for another human’s life and security. You invest so much time and energy and concern into your child and it seems so very easy for something to go wrong and snuff it out in one awful instant.
That is why I read with interest a blog on “Free Range Kids” that another friend linked me to a few months ago. The premise of the blog is that helicopter parenting and other approaches to child development and risk management are grossly flawed. The author argues that the risks of accidental death, molestation by sexual predators, etc., are overblown and parents tend to do more harm than good in trying to shield their children from such threats rather than raising them to be conscious of the risks and competent to deal with them on their own. It’s another classic example of the intervention versus interdependence mindset.
Reading the blog got me thinking about my own experiences with navigating childhood risk, and how the Wolf and I might approach this subject with our Little Lion and any other issuance in our line. But first, a quick anecdote.
The Wolf and I live near the ocean, and two weeks ago we went down to an area on the water for a morning dog walk. As we passed by the various docks and inlets, we stopped to admire three young boys (probably about age 10 or 11) sitting in small motor dinghy by the shore, clearly about to begin a fishing expedition. The boys were all wearing life jackets and seemed appropriately attired for a somewhat chilly expedition on the water. One boy was working vigorously to start the uncooperative outboard motor while the other two boys chatted and gave him backseat driver advice. It was a beautiful sight!
There were no adults in sight. In fact, on our little walking path there weren’t even any other passersby at this particular moment. While I don’t KNOW that the boys arranged, dressed and transported themselves to their shared outing, it certainly didn’t look like anyone was responsible for the get together but them. And while ten year olds are not toddlers, they’re still quite immature in many ways, but they seemed to be plenty capable to handle the logistics of a fishing trip, the mechanics of motorized water conveyance and the social grace of maintaining a civil and friendly atmosphere in the confined space of a small boat. And they paid attention to safety, wearing their life jackets even on the tranquil waters of the inlet with no scolding adult nearby to remind them.
Such a sight is common where we live. Many young people enjoy surfing, sailing and other water sports and can often be seen biking themselves down to the water and conducting these kinds of outings with limited or no adult supervision. For many water-born children, especially boys, it is something like a rite of passage to either get permission to use the family watercraft, or to be given a small watercraft of one’s own at a certain stage in one’s youth. In fact, it is one of the very special things about living where we live, that this kind of activity is available to young children and that the local culture seems to support it. The harbor patrol stayed in their berths that morning, like many others, as thankfully the neighbors didn’t feel the need to call the cops on a few kids out to have a good time by themselves.
The Wolf and I were quite pleased with this entire thing and thought about it as an ideal for our Little Lion to achieve one day as well. We really admired the (unseen) parents for having the good sense and the trust in their children to simply sleep in and let them do their thing! How would children who can go on a fishing trip on their own at age 10 ever become a burden to themselves, their parents or society?
Still, so much could go wrong! The boys could scald themselves with the hot engine and its liquids. They could shred their hand on an exposed propeller. They could get a fish hook in the eye, or topple over into the water and float out to sea. They could get hit by a larger boat. They could get too cold! I’m being facetious, but it is still scary for me on some level to think about the simple things that could go wrong. Then, I started thinking about my own childhood experiences, and those of my parents.
Growing up in the same community, I didn’t spend much time on the waterfront, but I did manage to have an active and independent play life. I spent a lot of time riding my bike around the neighborhood, sometimes with friends nearby and other times by myself. I liked doing “jumps” off the curb, where a driveway sloped up to meet the angled curb in the street. I also liked riding up on steep driveways and then using the momentum to get speed on the way down, often ending in a “jump”. I played “soldier” with neighborhood kids, army crawling over people’s lawns and through their hedges, which they probably didn’t appreciate but we sure thought was a blast.
One of my best friends growing up lived about three miles away from me, in a part of town that was most easily accessed by riding one’s bike through an unpaved semi-wilderness area. Today, that area has an asphalt-paved trail with hundreds of people on it daily, but back then it was dirt (heavily irregular and eroded by rainfall and drought conditions) mixed with tall grass and flowering weeds, strewn with cactus, patrolled by skunks and other odd wildlife and not well traveled by others. Meaning, if you fell or ran into a “bad guy”, it was unlikely anyone would know about it right away. Yet, I made that 3 mile bike ride once a week, sometimes riding home before dark and other times getting picked up by my parents if it got too late. I never had any problems and they always trusted me to be careful.
In another part of town where this semi-wilderness existed, you could ride your bike around dirt jumps and giant puddles created by the high school kids, avoid homeless bums squatting out in the bush and if you wanted to, ride your bike right off a steep cliff into the ocean below. There were no fences or guardrails at the time, although today it is covered with a housing development and a proper, paved and fenced walking trail. My parents never worried I’d become a casualty, and I never heard of anyone else becoming one. The most regretful thing that happened to any young people growing up was a drunk-driving incident on prom night on the paved curve road in town in which these poor kids flipped their vehicle and many fell out and died or had severe brain trauma.
Thinking about my parents, I know Grandpa Lion was a boy scout. Although boy scouts typically go on their camping expeditions in groups, the act of camping in the wilderness itself is basically an invitation to unnecessary risks that don’t exist back in “civilization”. My dad raced dirt bikes, go carts and other motorized contraptions as a child. I don’t know what Grandma Lion did that was risky for a young girl, but I know her brother tells tales of throwing lit firecrackers at other children and shooting pellet guns across his balcony at his friend next door and vice versa. I certainly wouldn’t condone firing pellet guns, even with eye protection, but the point is that young people seemed to do all kinds of dangerous stuff back then and they managed to survive.
When the Wolf and I talk about how we hope to handle our anxiety with our Little Lion, a few themes present themselves again and again. First, the goal we have in mind, as mentioned above, is to give him the opportunity to be trusted and provided resources to explore life on his own or with friends and not to create a paradigm of control and “protection”. Second, our plan is to actively look for opportunities to build his knowledge of risk and measure his awareness and responsiveness to it. In other words, building trust in him, and competence to manage risks he will face, will be an ongoing process learned on a case-by-case basis. Finally, we do not feel comfortable just sending him off into the world and seeing what happens but rather, we will observe his level of maturity and personal capability over time and provide him exposure to settings and circumstances, with our supervision, he seems to be ready for and see how he does. If he demonstrates he’s got it, he earns more leniency, and if he demonstrates he is still figuring it out, we will keep working with him on it until both parties can feel secure that the level of responsibility involved is met by and appropriate level of mastery.
That being said, that mastery is always going to be something he will have to create for himself through a bit of his own risk-taking. He can never know HIS limits if he has ever only had the opportunity to deal with OURS. That’s a fact of life we need to be aware of and learn to accept!