Friday, April 10, 2015

Free Range Chickens (err, Children)

  A few days ago, whilst browsing my Facebook news feed, I came across this article, which was shared by numerous friends. The title, "What Would My Mom Do? (Drink Tab and Lock Us Outside)" piqued my curiosity, so I clicked the link and began to read. And laugh. And nod as I read each paragraph. Granted, my mom never drank Tab and to my knowledge, never took a Jazzercise class, but she certainly shared a lot of traits with the mother of the author. Particularly, she let my brother and I be kids.

  I had a supremely happy childhood, one that had absolutely nothing to do with material possessions, multiple activities every single day of the week, and a constant need to be "entertained." My mom was a stay at home mom (let's make this easy and resort to acronyms; what can I say, I'm an Army wife), or SAHM, which was somewhat unusual in the early 80's. My mom even told me not too long ago that she was interviewed by the local newspaper on what it was like staying at home with small children when so many women her age were a part of the workforce. As a toddler and preschooler, my days were filled with story hour at the library, daily trips to the park in the village, dancing around the living room to "Jimmy Crack Corn" on my Fisher Price record player, Sesame Street, the occasional trip to the Milwaukee County Zoo, and running around the neighborhood with the other kids. Was my mom attentive, loving, nurturing, and aware of my surroundings and whereabouts? Absolutely. Was she a hovering, in-your-face-every-second "smother" who documented every single milestone? No. Nor would I have wanted her to be. 

  My parents knew all of our neighbors, and so did I. I knew who I could go to in the unfortunate (and extremely rare) event my mother wasn't there to help me. All of the parents looked out for all of the children on the block, and no one thought twice about seeing kids play outside unsupervised. In fact, it was expected, and it would have been odd to see a parent parked outside in the driveway, watching their children's every move. By the time I was in elementary school, my best friend and I were allowed to walk or ride our bikes to school together. Every summer, she and I would hurry up, eat breakfast and get dressed, and race around the neighborhood on our bikes, skates, or in our backyards. My dad (banker by day, carpenter by night) built a fantastic swingset for my brother and I when I was in third grade. Every day after school, my best friend, brother and I would run out to that swingset and play for hours. We made up games. We played Ninja Turtles. We brought out my boom box (yes, boom box) and danced around to cheesy 90's music. Our next door neighbors had a great big hill in their backyard, and whenever it would snow, we would grab our sleds and spend a good part of the afternoon going up and down and up and down and up and down that hill. Our neighbors didn't care. My parents never came outside with us; they didn't need to. In fact, by that age I would have been incredibly annoyed with my mom "checking up" on me. 

  Like the author, if someone had insinuated that my mom was unattentive, uncaring or reckless by allowing my brother and I these small freedoms, we would have looked at that person like they had three heads. There was nothing even remotely uncaring about my mom. On the contrary, I remember complaining that she was "so strict" compared to my friends' parents. If we wanted to play outside, we had to be back in time for dinner, or back after an hour or two to do homework. If I said I was going to a friend's house, my mom had to know which friend I was visiting, was their parent home, what did we plan on doing. I wasn't allowed to sit in the trunk of a station wagon like some of my friends; I had to sit in an actual seat with a seatbelt on. If I wanted to ride my bike anywhere besides our street, I had to let my mom know. Obviously, her "rules" are laughable now, by society's standards. Woe to the parent who lets their 10-year go to the park alone. Or walk to school without a chaperone. Or play outside with friends without setting up a lawn chair in your driveway, yelling out encouraging words every five minutes. You can expect a visit from CPS. 

  Look, there's a happy medium, like everything else in life. I know adults who grew up in the 50's, who laughingly tell me that they never saw their parents except for first thing in the morning and again at dinner time. They were expected to get out of the house and play all day long. I certainly wouldn't go that far; I DO want to know where my kids are at all times. I'm not blind to the dangers that are out there. But I also have zero intention of being a helicopter mom who hovers over my children's every step at the playground. Or helps them write book reports all the way through high school. Or plans an activity every single day of the week, because ENRICHMENT!!!! Do I enjoy reading books with my kids, taking them to the park, arranging play dates with my good friend Maureen so our kids can hang out, and burn off some much needed energy? Absolutely. Did I enjoy the occasional class as a kid? Sure! I started playing violin at the age of six (and continued all the way through college, where I majored in music). I took dance lessons and gymnastics, although both of those tapered off very quickly. I took swim lessons in the summer, and my brother and I loved playing twilight baseball. My point, however, is that we truly enjoyed these activities and classes. We were never made to feel as though we needed to be occupied every afternoon after school, or every day during the summer. If we lost interest in an activity after a season, we were never expected to keep up with it. We either explored something else that sounded like fun, or we just went on with our day.

  We want our children to grow up to be secure, happy, GOOD, independent adults. We want our children to know love and security, and to know they can always come to us in times of trouble, or if they need advice. We also want them to know how to take care of themselves, how to help others, and to have a strong work ethic. How in the world are we supposed to accomplish this, if it's now frowned upon to let our kids be kids without constant parental supervision and involvement? Of course I worry about the things every parent worries about; what will my kids do if a stranger approaches them and attempts to lure them into his or her car? What if Alessandra gets into a car with someone who has had too much to drink? What if Tony decides to "test the boundries" in high school, and blows off homework and tests, and realizes that he doesn't have the grades to get into college? Those are all normal fears, and I'd be hard pressed to find a parent who doesn't share the same worries. However, I never thought I would have to worry about being reported to CPS because my elementary school aged children were playing alone at the playground, a block or two away from our house. It never occurred to me (until recently) that I might have to worry about our neighbors alerting the authorities, rather than the parents, if my child falls off their bike while riding around the block. 

  To be honest, I'm not really sure what the solution is here. How do we reassure nervous, young mothers-to-be that they can still be wonderful, nurturing mothers, even if they don't read every single child development book that's been published, and they don't have to have a calendar full of Baby Learns French, Gymnastics for Tots, Music Therapy for the Littles, and Engineering for Beginners? How do we politely tell the older generation that while they were absolutely right to let their children play outside and entertain themselves, times have changed, and things like car seat safety, sunblock and bicycle helmets are absolute necessities in this day and age? I don't know, and I certainly don't claim to have all the answers. I just wish that as a society, we could learn to spot the difference between a child who is truly neglected, as opposed to a child who is well-loved and cared for, and simply given more freedoms than other children. 

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