Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Independence day

Growing up in Carlisle doesn’t offer a lot of opportunities for children to practice independence. With its narrow winding roads, distantly spaced houses, and lack of sidewalks outside the town center, the fact that few kids walk to friends’ houses or school isn’t a matter of laziness: it’s logistics. The single standard rite of passage for a middle schooler here is to be allowed to go to Ferns Country Store and the library after school with friends – exactly as it was when I was a middle schooler in Carlisle 30 years ago.

So a mother like me, determined to renounce the notion of helicopter parenting, has to seek out ways to let children stretch. An afternoon meeting near Concord Center earlier this week gave me an idea. “How about if I drop you two off on Main Street?” I suggested to Tim and Holly. “You can get an ice cream cone at Helen’s and then walk to the library. I’ll find you there when my meeting is over.”

Concord Center is full of shoppers, tourists and community members who were sure to intervene should anyone try to snatch the kids off the sidewalk. Moreover, Tim and I were both carrying cell phones: it would be virtually impossible for us to fail to connect, even if the plan didn’t go exactly as anticipated.

As we drove to Concord, I reviewed the itinerary with them. “I’ll drop you off by the monument. We’ll be on the opposite side of the street from Helen’s, but just go to the crosswalk and be sure cars stop before you cross. Then to get to the library, you just walk down Main Street. When you get to the fork, the library will be on your right. You’re not supposed to answer phone calls in the library, so I’ll text-message you to find out exactly where you are. But just in case all else fails and for some reason we can’t reach each other, expect to find me at the library around three.”

I made myself stop. Part of this exercise needs to be seeing if they can figure it all out themselves, I told myself. You already know they can follow instructions. Take this opportunity to find out how capable they are when you’re not hovering.

My appointment ended at 2:50. I sent Tim a text: “On my way to the library.”

I parked outside the library at 2:55. I sent Tim another text: “Where are you?”

No response to either text. For the first time, I felt a twinge of apprehension. Suppose I couldn’t find them?

But how would I not be able to find them? From the library lawn, I could practically see the whole distance down Main Street to where I dropped them off, all two blocks of it. Where could they be other than in the library or somewhere along those two blocks?

Except that I couldn’t find them in the library. Not in the children’s room, not in the reading area, not in the reference room, not amidst the DVD stacks.
I went back outside and tried calling Tim’s number despite my instructions to him not to let his phone ring in the library. It went to voicemail.

Was it actually possible for two almost-teenage children to disappear on the streets of Concord Center? I couldn’t imagine how. With two of them together, even if something awful had happened to one – being hit by a car, a seizure, an attack of amnesia – surely the other could manage to get help.

I dialed Tim again. This time it rang. And he answered.

“Hi Mom. We’re at the bookstore,” he said nonchalantly before I could say a word.

The bookstore is halfway between Helen’s and the library. I arrived in less than a minute, and just as reported, both of my children were sitting together in the children’s section, poring over the newest picture book by Mo Willems. “Mommy, this book is so silly!” Holly exclaimed as soon as she saw me.

“Hi you guys,” I said as calmly as I could. “How’d you end up here?”

They explained: they’d bought ice cream cones, walked to the library, sat out on the library lawn for a while, then on a whim decided to double back to the bookstore. Tim wasn’t sure why he hadn’t heard the text message beeps or my earlier phone call; just too engrossed in books, he guessed.

Partly it was just the relief of finding them, but even after that passed, I realized I didn’t really mind the way it had turned out. Sure, they should have followed my instructions, but it was no big deal. After all, they were in a bookstore in Concord, the heart of literary America. They weren’t so much disobeying instructions as following a historical imperative.

My goal was to give the kids a small sense of independence. Not only had they had a taste of independence; they’d taken the ball and run with it, improvising their own plan along the way.

It’s not exactly Outward Bound. But for two kids from the suburbs who don’t get a lot of opportunities to chart their own course, it’s a start.

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