While growing up in the 80s, I remember distinctly that my friends and I would meet up after school and promptly disappear. Meaning, our parents really had no idea where we were. Sometimes playing basketball in a neighbor’s backyard, or building forts in the woods behind the neighborhood, or in some other neighborhood doing who knows what.
There were no mobile phones, let alone pagers; no shoe soles or wearable devices with a GPS unit embedded in it; no such thing as an amber alert if one of us went missing. Yet, not a single one of our parents were sweating bullets. It’s not that they were irresponsible. It was just how the times were back then.
Fast forward to today and if your child is out of sight for approximately 12 seconds, alarm bells pierce through whatever thought you had. That is, until you realize your child was standing right behind you. And you’ll tell the story to your friends, to your co-workers, to strangers standing around wondering why you’re lecturing your child about being out of sight when he/she was standing a mere two feet away.
OK, What Am I Getting At?
When Najwa was much younger and we’d take her to the park, I developed a guilty complex. See, she would run off around the park, behind the slide where I couldn’t see her, on the other side of the park and I didn’t know, maybe even up the hill towards the rec center while I sat there, reading a book.
“WHO’S CHILD IS THIS!?” would ring across the park by some parent, wondering what failure of a parent would let their two or three year old run around a park without oppressive supervision. Hence, I developed the habit of being no more than five steps behind her, always making sure every other parent knew that I was a responsible father.
That lasted a day. Let me explain:
- No one is going to run up and snatch anyone’s child in a park with dozens of other kids and equal parents.
- I’m too old to be chasing around a child that runs on solar power.
Now don’t get me wrong. I understand that there are predators out there. I understand that kids do crazy stunts and end up breaking stuff if not their own bones. However, I also understand that that’s how they learn and develop into more aware, more responsible and more independent kids then teens then adults. Najwa once accidentally knocked over this massive mirror at Target. It shattered into thousands of pieces. She was on the edge of tears when she looked at me and, well, I chuckled. It was funny. Not the destruction of other people’s property but the sheer terror in her face as if she was going to go to jail.
I asked her later how she felt when it smashed. She surprised me. I thought she was going to say she was scared or startled but she said she felt guilty. What’s my point? Najwa’s very deliberate when handling anything remotely breakable when we go to the store. I don’t have to tell her to keep her hands to herself anymore. Sometimes, I have to tell her it’s okay to touch stuff.
You Don’t Even Know It’s Happening
But it creeps up on you. That feeling of “where’s my child!?” You don’t notice it at first. For the first year of their lives, they can’t escape you even if they wanted to. Then they learn to roll over, crawl and walk and you can’t take your eyes off of them because you’re mesmerized by their ability to walk.
Then you dare not take your eyes away from the ages of two to four because they’re running into the street, jumping off the dining table, spinning in circles and circles and circles then toppling down the stairs. By the age of five, you’ve heard your fair share of missing kids thanks to the 24-hour news cycle that needs viewers to sell ads. Not to mention the Amber Alerts popping up in your phone. And social media where people you know are posting about missing kids. Each time you hear about a missing kid, you can’t help but to wonder what would you do, how would you feel if it was yours, and soon enough, you’re standing opposite the bathroom door while your seven year old is taking a dump in a public bathroom.
I felt that urge to tattoo myself onto my child when in public, but then I heard about America’s Worse Mom.
You mean, I shouldn’t feel bad about that time I tied a helium balloon on Najwa’s four year old arm while at Kmart and let her wander around by herself since I could see the balloon from anywhere I was standing? Or the time Nduku and I were in Romania and the waitress, who spoke virtually no English, was so taken by our two year old’s cuteness that she had to show her co-workers; she grabbed our child’s hand and led her to the kitchen in the back. Out of sight. In a foreign country. Where barely anyone spoke English.
After reading The Coddling of the American Mind, I have made a commitment to think about my child’s development before her safety. I know that sounded bad but it’s about perspective. As a parent my job is to teach her about strangers. See, strangers aren’t danger. Strangers are 99.9 percent of the time harmless, helpful and even protective of other people’s kids. I am. As a parent my job is also to help Najwa develop her spidey sense when a stranger is up to no good. I’d hate for to have to learn how to distinguish people’s motives in college when I’m not there…
“C’mon, just take a sip…”
Alpha Testing Free Range Child
A few weeks ago, Najwa and I were at Target. She wanted to buy a toy. We walked in and I stopped at the front of the store and told her she had 15 minutes. Go.
My goodness was the sirens screaming in my ears! All of the sudden, every human being looked like a perverted kidnapper eyeing me to see if I was eyeing them. Everyone looked like a look out for their buddies dragging Najwa out the back of the store. Thirty minutes later, she she comes walking around the corner unaware of how tense I was. And what does she show me?
Seriously, we need to relax. Not let go, just relax. I probably won’t toss Najwa on the Metro to get home by herself, but I’m okay with her walking around the store alone. And if I wasn’t concerned about my neighbors calling social services on me, I’d let her walk the three blocks to the corner store by herself. That and Nduku hasn’t subscribed to my free range child mentality (yet!) though she hasn’t accused me of being a terrible dad.
Disclaimer: If you’re a parent whose child has hung out with us, during those times I do not let them out of my sight. For long anyway.
Najwa will be turning nine this year. That means she’s halfway to the day that she moves away for college. And even fewer years before she stops listening to us. And hanging out with her friends in the streets without us.
So if we’re going to help her develop street smarts, instincts and habits for critical situations, and robust decision-making skills, I say we do so while she’s still in our home as opposed to waiting until she’s flown the coop.