From the time children are babies they are trying to break free. As soon as toddlers can stand and take their first wobbly steps, they start to run. Invariably, they run away, racing out into the world, arms outstretched — not to brace for the inevitable fall, but to grab the world in their hands. Kids are like that: craving independence, every step of the way.
As parents, our job is to protect, guide and — eventually — let go, which can be challenging because there are times when we enjoy taking part in the activity.
The day came suddenly when my toddler, Melissa, was no longer content to be fed with a spoon. I knew I was way more adept at depositing the food into her mouth, but she flailed her arms and pushed me away, blocking all my attempts to feed her. I acquiesced, and relinquished the fork to her unsteady hand. I watched her feeble attempts as the orange mush landed on her right cheek, then her left, and, finally, in her hair. I had to let her try — not only did she give me no choice, stubborn as she has always been, but I knew that I couldn’t feed her forever.
Letting go is also hard because we need to analyze some pretty bizarre and sudden requests on the spot, like, “What is wrong with a coed sleepover? We are all friends.” Or this doozie: “Mind if I go to a midnight show on Houston Street?”
I used to be challenged by seemingly simpler queries, such as my 11-year-old son’s request to go to the supermarket with his friends, unchaperoned. I couldn’t understand the lore of the produce and frozen food aisles to a bunch of pre-pubescent males, but, to a great extent, this tween was asking for his freedom. He was asking me to trust him, and not just asking to “hang” with his friends. It was up to me to determine whether or not these boys would be safe in a public supermarket, and whether they would become a nuisance to the other shoppers.
I don’t appreciate it when my children present me with a new challenging request, expecting an instantaneous answer. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the hot seat, as a teen hastily presses me for approval of the newly revealed evening agenda, one foot out the door, telling me that someone’s mother is already waiting outside.
“Teens need to learn to wait for results, just like adults do,” says Lori Hiller, a school social worker in Brooklyn. She suggests parents tell teens that failure to ask for permission early enough might result in denial of their request. After all, she says, in making these tough decisions, parents walk a tightrope between too strict and too lenient.
“Safety” is usually my first line of defense. When my then-fourth grader stubbornly insisted that she was old enough to walk the four blocks home from school by herself, I finally gave in and permitted it, shadowing her with my SUV. She trod down the street, chest puffed out, blatantly proud of her new-found independence. That is, until an unidentified white car pulled up just ahead of her. I lowered my window, and in my most authoritative tone, yelled “Melissa, get in this car this minute!” That put an end to the “walking home alone” discussion for quite a while.
But children need to subconsciously push the envelope both to see how far they can go and to see you put up a boundary for them, so that they feel safe, says Hiller.
My second line of defense is “intel.” Knowing full well that my children will be telling me that I am the last parent holdout to reserve my approval of their group plans, I try to foresee their upcoming requests and I confer secretly with my peers. I’ll inquire of parents who have traditionally shown themselves to be like-minded in their standards and values.
By seventh grade, Melissa asked to be allowed to be dropped off at the mall with her friends. They wanted to shop together without any adult in tow. I needed to be weaned from the protective mother mode slowly, so at first, a parent was nearby, checking in every half hour or so. As the girls got older and proved to be more responsible, and since they had cellphones, a mother was in the mall and on call for a crisis, but was not stationed within viewing distance. Then, sometime near the end of eighth grade, I finally gave in and actually dropped the girls off at the mall, sans chaperone.
I believe a parent’s instinct is often accurate. If a child’s proposed plans seem inappropriate or make a parent feel particularly uncomfortable, then the plans probably require more analysis and discussion.
Whenever my children were prohibited from going where they wanted, exactly when they wanted, I was labeled as “the strictest, most overprotective mom” in the neighborhood. My guess is there were plenty of other parents hearing those same exact words.
Independence is a process, but it takes baby steps and basic goals at each stage along the way, with the ultimate goal being an independent adulthood.
Risa C. Doherty is a freelance writer and attorney from East Hills, NY, and mother of an independent college student and almost-independent high school senior.
Copyright 2011 by Risa C. Doherty