Monday, May 17, 2010

Letting the kids wander a little - while I sit and worry

Yesterday was a beautiful warm sunny May day. My 7-year-old invited her friend Samantha over to play. They asked me if they could go out to the barn. This is something fairly new for Holly. We live on the edge of my parents’ farm, and although she likes climbing rocks and playing in the pastures, Holly has generally showed little interest in the barnyard. But this was the second time this spring she and a friend had asked to play there.

I said yes with the usual caveats. “You have to be either in the barn or somewhere between there and the house; no wandering farther away. And you have to play together. No dividing up, even for something like hide-and-seek.” The girls agreed readily to these terms and headed out. I sat outside trying to read the newspaper, but because they were out of my eyesight, I worried.

I knew how silly that was. I knew this was exactly the kind of thing many parents love to see their kids do: play outside, take a friend by the hand and go do something a little bit adventuresome. My next door neighbor, Gail, introduced me to the book “Last Child in the Woods,” which essentially posits that it’s a big problem that we give our kids so little free rein anymore, both in terms of time – they are always scheduled for some activity or another – and in terms of physical independence. And recently I’ve discovered Lenore Skenazy’a popular Free Range Kids blog, devoted to this same idea. In fact, Skenazy is currently planning a fairly controversial event for next weekend called “Take Your Kids to the Park – And Leave Them There!”, intended to raise parents’ consciousness about being a little more lenient with our kids and allowing them to benefit from a little more physical freedom.

So as I sat there trying to read the paper, I reminded myself that it was a wonderful thing that Holly and Samantha were off exploring the barnyard. I knew they both had good judgment, just as my son Tim does. Neither of my kids is a daredevil: when I tell them to be cautious, or even if I don’t tell them to, I know they will. Both are diligent about following rules, and I’ve always trusted that if a friend does something my kids know to be wrong while playing at our house, my kids will tell me.

Still, I was uneasy with Samantha and Holly over in the barnyard, because I couldn’t see or hear them. The fears I have, based on the specifics of where we live and what they were doing, aren’t the typical worst-case scenarios. It’s extremely unlikely that there are child abductors, or anyone else for that matter, lurking in our pastures. The girls weren’t visible from the main road. And all the animals who have access to the barnyard are friendly, gentle and shy, so that wasn’t a concern either. Instead, I worry that one of them will wander into the woods, maybe even into a stream, which is why I insist they stay within eyesight of each other when they play and why I specifically disallow hide and seek. I also worry about stings. Twice, I’ve been in a situation with kids where we accidentally blundered into a hornets’ next, and it’s an awful situation to be in. While I trusted that if one of the girls had a minor accident like a fall, the other one would come get me, I couldn’t imagine how they’d manage if they stumbled onto a nest of hornets.

So I waited for a little bit, and then I wandered over just to check. A short distance from the barn, I could see them exploring the area together. They were fine. They were doing exactly what every mother should be lucky enough to see her seven-year-old doing on a beautiful spring day: enjoying the outdoors, discovering new elements of nature, exerting her independence to find ways to have fun. In this way, Skenazy’s idea about having kids spend some time at the park with other kids and without adult supervision makes a lot of sense. But still, I worry about emergencies: not abductions so much as bee stings.

After checking on the girls, though, I made myself stop worrying and just be happy that they were enjoying themselves. It can be hard to reach a state of mindfulness as a parent. You watch your child run off toward the woods and want to relish the Kodak moment but instead you’re worrying about hornets’ nests. Finding a balance is always the challenge: assure yourself they’re safe, and let them have fun. I know the girls had fun yesterday, and I believe they were safe. And I’m just really grateful that they got to play outside on such a magnificent spring day.

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