I was five years old when I came home to an empty house.
My family lived across the street from my elementary school, and as a kindergartner in the late 1970’s I was allowed to walk home. This day was special. My grandmother was going to be watching me. I was in a terrific rush to get home (and get a cookie or similar grandmother-y goody), but I looked both ways and crossed the street carefully. I walked to the carport door and knocked smartly. No answer. I knocked harder. Still no answer. I banged as hard as I could and called out, “Grandma! Where are you? I’m here!” Nothing.
I stepped back to assess the situation. I was home from school, but there was no adult to greet me. Clearly, I had beaten my grandmother to the house. She must still be on her way. My grandmother had recently stopped driving, so I knew she must be taking the bus. My methodical five-year-old brain decided her bus must be late. I did the only thing that made any sense to me: I walked to the bus stop to meet her.
The bus stop was about a block down the hill, across a very busy street. I got to the intersection and sized up the situation. Deciding there was too much traffic for me to cross by myself, I sat down on a patch of grass with a clear view of the bus bench to wait. Every time a bus arrived, I would stand up to wave at my grandmother. But she wasn’t on any of them. I continued my vigil as bus after bus went by.
Meanwhile, up at the house, my hard-of-hearing grandmother was setting off alarm bells. I was missing! I was kidnapped! I was murdered! Or worse, I was disobedient! I can’t remember the details of the panic, but my absence was definitely noted.
Back on the grass patch, a neighbor came across me picking a clover. She and her little boy sat with me. I explained to her that I was waiting for my grandmother’s bus. While this probably seemed odd, I was quite confident I was doing the right thing. She did what any good adult would have done in the age before cell phones: she supervised me until my regular adults showed up.
Eventually I was reclaimed by my family, who were terrified and grateful. I was indignant that Grandma had ignored my knocking and was subjected to many, many lectures on how I was to never wander off by myself again.
But here’s the part that always stung me: I didn’t wander off. I was solving a problem.
As I now look at my own five year old girl, I remember very clearly what it was like to be a small person with a problem to solve. I want her to have the experience of dealing with a world out of order, in a situation where her choices matter. But this brings me to the point of my story: risk.
As a child I took an incredible risk, not deliberately, but blindly. I was blissfully unaware that there was any danger in being out alone on a street corner. Now, I think back on that escapade with a mother’s terror. This is the fundamental paradox of parenting: how do I let children risk when it is my job to keep them safe? If my kids are going to solve real-world problems, they need real-world experiences. Those opportunities necessarily involve physical and personal risk – being unsupervised, being autonomous, being asked to take responsibility for oneself. All of that runs completely counter to the primal voice in my gut that tells me I have to protect these small humans above all else.
I took a first small step towards granting child freedom this week. My seven year old begged me to let her take a mis-delivered parcel to a neighbor’s house. My instinct was to say no. But – she’s seven. The house, while out of sight, is a two minute walk down a private driveway. My mind clattered with risk calculations while my daughter bounced up and down, the parcel in her little red wheelbarrow, waiting for permission. I looked at her determined face. This was important to her. I smiled, waved her off down the driveway, and started watching the clock. When she hadn’t returned ten minutes later, in a mess of panic I grabbed her little sister and started running. We were halfway down the driveway when my daughter bounced back towards us, full of neighborhood gossip. She is better at small talk than me, and had been chatting the afternoon away. I breathed deeply, embarrassed by my own anxiety.
I am still limping towards free range parenting.
Each new freedom brings new hazards. I need to remember being the confident five year old who took action to solve a problem. If I want that confidence for my own kids, I am going to have to make room in our lives for risk.