The Lit Causerie: Free Range Kids Edition
I often joke that my wife is not a helicopter parent to our five-year-old boy. She’s more of a surveillance drone. For real. You couldn’t fit the collected novels of Emily Brontë between the two of them. Her understanding of parenting seems to be that it’s the mother’s job to shield her spawn from even the slightest hint of danger or discomfort. My job, of course, according to her anyway, is to crassly joke that by doing so she’s turning him into a complete pussy.
But after a brief scare at Panera Bread last month I realized that the joke being played was really on me.
I took him there for some bagels and cookies after a vigorous playground session. I sat him down at a table and then got in line to make our order. Somehow, in between constant safeguarding glances back at the table, he had managed to disappear. I freaked out. I caused a minor scene rushing out the door to check the sidewalks, pacing the main dining room, calling on the shift manager to do something about this great tragedy.
It turns out he just went to the bathroom and I am as big a drone as my wife.
I thought of this scene and my unreasonable fear as I read the first few chapters of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird this week. Early in the novel Scout, the scrapy narrator, recounts her first day of school:
Jem condescended to take me to school the first day, a job usually done by one’s parents, but Atticus had said Jem would be delighted to show me where my room was. I think some money changed hands in this transaction, for as we trotted around the corner past the Radley Place I heard an unfamiliar jingle in Jem’s pockets.
Jem is only in the fifth grade! Scout in the first. I’d probably get a visit from a social services child protection unit if I allowed my son to walk the three blocks to school by himself. Unfortunately, we’re no longer the country of Atticus Finch. We’re a fearful nation of nannies.
I must learn to let go of this unfounded fear. My son is smart enough to make the decision to use the bathroom without my knowledge or permission. Even within the fearsome confines of franchise restaurants. Things could get ugly if more parents don’t remove the bubble wrap from their kids. As Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt write in Reason magazine:
Efforts to protect our children may be backfiring. When we raise kids unaccustomed to facing anything on their own, including risk, failure, and hurt feelings, our society and even our economy are threatened. Yet modern child-rearing practices and laws seem all but designed to cultivate this lack of preparedness. There’s the fear that everything children see, do, eat, hear, and lick could hurt them. And there’s a newer belief that has been spreading through higher education that words and ideas themselves can be traumatizing.
More Scout, less scared. That’s my mantra moving forward.