Love Something, Set It Free

Helicopter parenting. Participation medals. Parents fighting referees, coaches, and each other. Calling children’s teachers to complain about bad grades they earned. Moving to college with a child. Parents going on job interviews with their children. What the what? Seriously, parents. That whole “If you love something, set it free” thing? Yeah, do that.

I keep reading articles about helicopter parenting, free-range parenting, how our parents parented vs. the fear-based parenting of today, and–ugh. For the most part, I say to each their own when it comes to parenting your kids. While I realize I tend to pal around with people who have similar parenting styles to my own, it’s not like we’re all an exact match on every issue. Hell, my husband and I aren’t even on the same page all the time. So we’re all going to do it differently because we—and our children—are individuals. But one thing we all have to learn to do (at a developmentally appropriate time and in a developmentally appropriate way) with our children is to let them go.

I know it’s easier said than done. What made me think about this whole issue was a trip we took to Disney World a couple weeks ago. For whatever reason, letting my kid play on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay doesn’t faze me, but letting her run several hundred yards in front of us on a totally empty sidewalk at a Disney resort had my heart in my throat. It’s the same feeling I get when we”re walking the dogs and she’s scooting ahead of me on the street. There’s a slight curve in the sidewalk and some mechanical equipment that hides her from view for a moment or two and I always have to fight the urge to tell her to stop and wait for me. There’s no reason for her to, I just momentarily panic thinking about that fact that a car could ram through the line of parked cars, jump the curb, and plow into my kid. And at Disney, she could have rolled down the hill, continued to roll on the shore, and rolled into the man-made stream. Because…it…could happen… I remind myself that I can’t live my life based on all the “coulds.” It’s more realistic that she’s going to fall down and get hurt and then be scared for a bit longer than necessary because it took a moment to get to her to give a hug. I get that. But still, I do understand the fear. What I don’t understand is our reaction to it. That we, as a society, err so much on the side of caution because we want to prevent the one-in-a-million from happening.

In September, my husband got a phone call from his sister, who was near tears and a bit hysterical. I could hear her telling my husband that our almost-four-year-old daughter fell and cut her eye. Admittedly, the eye thing had me freaked out, but he quickly determined that the cut was on the skin right under her eyebrow. I rolled over on the couch and mumbled, “Oh, that? Half her friends have had that. Just take her to urgent care and let us know what the bill is.” Now, I was coming down off morphine and was rocking some Percocet (which is why my daughter was four hours away with relatives), and I’m sure it was much more alarming in person, but it still didn’t sound like that big of a big deal. It’s such a typical childhood injury. My niece photographed the whole urgent care visit for my daughter’s yearly photobook and they took her out for her first McDonald’s blizzard on the way home. When my sister-in-law called us after they got home, my daughter didn’t want to talk to us because she was watching The Little Mermaid with her cousin. My sister-in-law was still quite upset and kept telling us she only turned around for a minute to get a coloring page off the printer and she was so sorry. My response? You raised three kids, the youngest of whom is in high school. Did you watch them every second of the day? (She may have. I wasn’t in the picture then, so I don’t know. I doubt it, though.) I don’t watch the kid every second of the day. I don’t think she fell down because she was unattended. As a matter of fact, because her aunt’s house has one of those floor plans that allows for running around the whole first floor in a circle—in this case, a figure-eight, even!—I would bet my daughter was running around like a maniac and either slipped or tripped and hit her head. It happens.

While I was getting ready for church on my first Mother’s Day, my tiny baby fell out of her unbuckled car seat and I thought she broke her nose at six months old. I wanted to die. (PSA: KID IN CAR SEAT? FASTEN THE STRAPS. ALWAYS. EVERYWHERE.) When a stainless steel water bottle fell off of a precariously stacked rack of just-washed dishes and cut a gash on the bridge of the poor kid’s nose, I felt monstrously guilty. In both cases, I felt like I should have known better. Even now, a couple years later, when I look at my daughter’s beautiful face and see the faint scar on her nose, I feel a twinge of guilt. (Although, I feel much less guilty when I look at it and then notice the much larger and purpler scar over her eye. So, thanks for that, SIL! [insert evil grin here.])

All joking aside, though, if you exist, you will get hurt. We can try to be thoughtful and safe and look for ways to prevent serious and lasting injury. We can learn from our mistakes (buckle the car seat *ahem*). But we have to have—and give—freedom and room in which to make those mistakes. So let your child try to climb a bit higher on the play structure at the park while you watch from a bench. Let your son run a little bit “too far” ahead of you on the sidewalk in your neighborhood. Let them go! And I think you’ll find that, as they grow, once you’ve set them free they will indeed come back. (And in one piece, too!)