The Safe Childhood

I'm reading the second book in Alexander McCall Smith's excellent series, 44 Scotland Street. Mr Smith is at his wryly observant, compassionate best in this series. It's about a varied group of residents at the eponymous address. One character is little 6 year old Bertie. Boy, does he have a bad time with his perfectly awful mother. She's a concerned, committed mother in all the worst ways. She uses her very bright little boy to play out all her own pathetic fantasies of accomplishment. And she shelters him terribly.

I grew up walking alone a mile through the woods to a lake where I, like my sister and brother before me, swam for hours in the summer.
I shudder now to think about it. My brother went scuba diving in that lake, by himself. He also hunted in the woods with a shotgun or a bow and arrow. He constructed rafts that invariably sank. Amazing! We were all young teenagers when we went on these adventures; 14, 15 years old. Would I have let my own children hunt and swim by themselves with no adults around or any kind of rescue available? I don't think so.

Now our children are constantly linked to us by cell phone. Many suburban parents do not let their young children play in the front yard without adult supervision. Unscheduled time is usually spent watching television or playing under an adult's eye on the safety-minded equipment in the backyard. Tom Sawyer would go stir-crazy!

It seems that the time for childhood adventure has past. Is this a bad thing? What do we sacrifice when safety is our highest priority?

Kathy responds:

This whole topic makes me sad. I too have tremendous memories of adventures with my sisters that just wouldn’t happen today. I suffer from the apprehension that many mothers’ feel when their kids are out of eyesight for a half an hour. I am constantly reminding myself to let my kids play, get dirty, go exploring. But there is occasionally this underlying fear of what if?

I then read a great book that helped me get over it, to some extent. It is called “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. It is all about how the feeling of fear is a gift that helps protect us, and how in American society we have gone way overboard to the extreme side of fear and protection of ourselves and our kids. It is a self help book that reads like a novel and I couldn’t put it down. Once I finished it, I recommended it to every woman in my life, because I thought it was that important for those I knew and loved to read it. His follow up book, “Protecting the Gift” deals specifically with how to protect our children, whereas the “Gift of Fear” helps us protect ourselves. Both books really changed how I handle myself in difficult situations and how I teach my children to protect themselves without scaring them to death.

Most importantly, they empowered me as a parent. These books helped me let my children make mistakes while they were with me, so that they had that experience to draw on when they weren’t. When we travel, I subtly teach them how to navigate the city we are in, and make it fun. When shopping, they wander. In an airport, they can go to the news stand and buy themselves something without my assistance. We have a plan if we ever get separated and I am confident they know what to do. Am I irresponsible? I really don’t think so.

There is someone in my life who I have watched over the years protect her children diligently. These kids always have choices, but it is between a great option, a better one and the best one of all. They very rarely fail and everything is carefully orchestrated so no that mistakes are made. A move was even contemplated to prevent their teenage driver from having to turn left when exiting their subdivision. In the end, it was decided that a series of right hand turns was a more cost effective option, but boy was there agony about that decision! Teaching the driver how to turn left at a dangerous intersection wasn’t even an option, because after all, that’s dangerous.

I want to do the best I can to keep my kids safe. Rather than limiting their experiences, I am teaching them how to handle the difficult ones when they are young and with me. They frequently fail, which is painful to watch sometimes, especially when I could have prevented it! But I hope that by doing this, when they are away from me, they can think for themselves, make good choices and be safe.

Sharon says:

I too, played in the woods with my sisters and we rode bikes in the street unsupervised (and without helmets!). Would I let my kids do it? Absolutely not! In my neighborhood, one parent, usually the mom, stayed home. Even in households where the children had long since grown and moved away, the woman continued her role as homemaker. I knew if I did anything dangerous or stupid, someone would see me and call my parents. Likewise, if I strange car pulled up and asked a group of us children for directions, a neighbor or two would be by our side in an instance. With both parents working and many single parent homes, there is no one to keep a watchful eye over the neighborhood kids anymore.

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