In April of this year, a newspaper columnist named Lenore Skenazy wrote in the New York Sun about how and why she let her nine-year-old son take the New York City subway by himself. The reaction was fierce and instantaneous: Half the country thought she should have been prosecuted for child abuse. I was not among them. I thought Ms. Skenazy had found an excellent way to fight back against the thudding drumbeat from the news media that the world is more dangerous than ever and our children are eternally hanging on by their fingernails. One false move and the abductor waiting just outside the front door will swoop in, and our child will never be seen again. Happens every day, you know. CNN tells us so.
The facts, of course, do not back up this extreme, yet commonplace, paranoia. Abductions by strangers are a vanishingly rare occurrence, and yet too many parents use it as an excuse to refuse to let a child go outside unsupervised. (Skenazy now writes a blog about this topic.)
I have fairly strong opinions that our rush to constantly protect our children from unseen enemies is actually hurting them more than it’s helping them. We are creating a generation of overly dependent weaklings. These are thoughts I have largely (but not entirely) kept to myself. Until recently.
Peanut was invited to a birthday party at a house around the corner from us. Walking there is a journey of less than five minutes, and requires crossing no streets. I thought this was the perfect opportunity for six-year-old Peanut to venture out on her own.
I did not expect this idea to be embraced by my wife, and it was not. She knows how I feel, but What If Something Was To Happen? She put the question to other parents, and came back to inform me that none of them would let their children do something as crazy as what I was suggesting. I theorized in return that I was right and everybody else was wrong. This did not do much for my argument.
I don’t put up much of a fight when these issues arise, because I have too much empathy for my wife. We have one “typical” child and one developmentally delayed child. My wife loves both of them. But she cherishes Peanut. Not every Fragile X family is blessed with a non-Fragile-X daughter. If anything was to ever happen to Sonny, that wound would take a long, long time to heal. If anything ever happened to Peanut… that wound might never heal. Is it crass and unfeeling to say so? Does this mean we love one child more than the other? I don’t think so. We can love them with equal passion — as we do — and still admit the obvious: That they are two different kids, and they affect us in two different ways.
Saturday was the birthday party. My wife was at work, which meant I played around with the idea of letting Peanut make the trip on her own even though I said I would not. But before I could even entertain those thoughts, I realized that the birthday party was for a pair of twins, and the gifts were in two large gift bags, and Peanut would not be able to carry these by herself the whole way. So the whole damn thing was moot. I got the kids into their shoes and coats, gave Peanut one gift bag while I carried the other, and off we went.
At the street corner and within view of the twins’ house, I gave Peanut the other gift bag and bid her farewell. She didn’t understand. “You have to walk me to the door,” she said.
“No, I don’t. You’re a big girl,” I said. “Go on.”
She took a couple of tentative steps away from me, like she expected me to reveal that this was a test and that she had failed: Never go more than fifteen feet away from me! Not even if I say so! When I did not yell at her but in fact made a shooing gesture, she turned and ran happily to her party, and Sonny and I went home.
Thus did Peanut have her first small taste of independence. I think it’s safe to say she liked it.
Ninety minutes later, Sonny and I went back to get her, and we were greeted warmly by Peanut with the following words: “You can go home. I’m going to walk by myself.”
“Peanut, we’re already here. And we’re all going in the same direction. So we may as well walk together.”
She said, “Then I’ll stay here for a while more and then come home.”
“No, Peanut, the party is over. That’s why all the parents are here.”
“Then I want to walk home behind you! By myself!”
Fine. We all left together, but Peanut walked at a snail’s pace, relishing the notion that no grownup was within handholding distance, while Sonny and I puttered on ahead. Sonny didn’t get it. He kept turning around to see what Peanut was doing. This freaked Peanut out. “No, Sonny!” she screamed from down the block. “I’m walking by myself! You stay with Daddy!” But Sonny kept turning around, making Peanut angrier and angrier, until she was a furious, bawling mess of tears.
The pinnacle came when Sonny, waiting for Peanut on the porch, had the nerve to open the door for her. You would have thought he came at her with a scythe. Peanut cried louder than ever to SHUT THE DOOR I WANT TO OPEN THE DOOR MYSELF.
Sonny, unnerved, starting laughing, which did not improve Peanut’s mood. I grabbed them both, brought them inside, gave Sonny a truck and put Peanut, screaming bloody murder, in her room to calm the hell down. She didn’t come out for twenty minutes.
And that was my first foray into letting my children run free. Surely the day Peanut gets her driver’s license will be an improvement over this. Right?