As I have gotten some backlash (balanced by a lot of appreciated support, I may add) for an article I wrote recently http://matadornetwork.com/trips/you-dont-know-how-to-travel-with-kids-do-you/ on my traveling-with-kids philosophy, I was at least amused to learn that some other writer had recently been deemed “The World’s Worst Mom”. And after reading her website, www.freerangekids.com, I decided she wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, my kiddos and I could totally hang out with her. She had me at the little slogan under her website name: “Fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers, Ivy League rejection letters and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.”Although those who know me well are probably laughing that the non-organic grape, of the entire list, is what actually worries me the most…
Like myself, Lenore (a.k.a. World’s Worst Mom) believes that an overwhelming number of kids these days are hovered over and protected to the point that the child does not grow up having the experiences that actually serve to teach him or her to be confident, self-reliant, and capable. Free-Range is not “free-wheeling.” Lenore wholeheartedly believes in teaching kids safety, she just also happens to believe that kids today are much smarter and safer than society gives them credit for.
The world has not actually changed so much from the time that our parents or grandparents lived, when they were allowed to walk themselves home from school without fear of being abducted. What has changed is our perception of the world in which we are raising our children. Parents today are drowning in gruesome news from around the world that comes to us instantaneously via our TVs, our Facebook, our iPhone – we are literally inundated. We hear about abductions in Portugal and Aruba, we see actual images of body bags. When your brain is saturated with horrific stories like those, it is hard to focus on the millions of children who are NOT murdered. We justtalk about the ones who are gone.
So when it is time to decide, “Hmm, is it safe for my child to walk to school?” we flash on the stories we have heard. Scientific fact: the most memorable stories come to mind first. And whatever comes to mind first, we usually think of as the most common, whether it is or is not common in reality.
In addition to all these gruesome images, it is undeniable that with live in the era of the lawsuit. We have gotten used to things being bannedthat may have even the tiniest chance of causing an accident that might cause a parent to sue. Long gone are the days of teeter-totters that are actually fun. Sadly, we get so used to all of these “safety” precautions (which, let’s face it, are actually lawsuit precautions), that we start thinking of everyday childhood activities as inherently unsafe. We hover. We raise kids with huge anxiety. And we raise kids who do not know how to handle a situation if mom or dad is not there to swoop in to save the day at the first sign of anything.
Confident kids who feel at home in the world are actually safer than coddled kids who have been taught they are dainty prey without mom or dad by their side – they know how to stick up for themselves, they know how to ask for help if it is actually needed, and they know the difference between a tiny scratch which they can milk for attention and an actual wound that needs a Band-Aid or stitches…and they certainly won’t stop their healthy playing and adventures just to go get coddled over an insignificant scratch. To be blunt, most kids I know these days are absolute wusses…but is it all their fault? No, I blame their parents for training them from day one that it is normal and expected to respond as though tiny everything is a huge deal or something to be afraid of.
There was an article recently published in a parenting magazine(four whole pages, mind you!) called “How to Have a Fun and Totally Safe Day in the Sun”. Is it so hard to have a safe day outside with your kid that one needs four pages of instructions? I can sum it up in one sentence: Slap on some sunscreen and watch them when they are in the water. Done.We are bombarded by warnings that try to convince us that our kids needour constant 24/7 help, or they will die.
Bringing me to how I actually found Lenore in the first place. She posted this letter that one of her readers sent her. I got goosebumps:
We spend a lot of time trying to control for risks in the lives of our children. We feed them right, we teach them to look both ways, we try devilishly hard to balance exercise and play with rest and work. But sometimes, despite our careful planning and watching and guiding, things just happen.
Three weeks ago, my 9-year-old daughter collapsed and died, in the space of less than three minutes, from a cardiomyopathy so rare that she was twice as likely to have been struck by lightning. She was ice skating, and having the time of her life. She never knew what happened and she was gone before I could skate the 20 yards to lift her from the ice. I’m not telling you this so your readers will all go out and have EKG’s for their kids. Probably couldn’t detect it if they did, to be candid.
This is, instead, about her life and what it meant. My father made a remark, while we were still in the hospital and the grief was devastatingly raw. But it’s sticking with me, and I am finding some solace in it: “She might only have been nine years old, but she lived 20 years in those nine.” What he meant was that she had done a lot, experienced a lot and just..LIVED…while she was here. She rode horses. She rode motorcycles with her dad (always with proper safety equipment). She went to old-fashioned church camps where they played in mud pits and made their own slip-n-slides and jumped in the lake and roasted marshmallows on fires with sticks. She played competitive hockey. She practiced Karate and Jujitsu. She rode her bike to her friend’s house, a mile away. By herself.
Did these activities carry risks? Absolutely. Calculated ones. Ones we could account for and try to control. Was I worried about her? Every day. Every time. Did I let her do these things anyway? Yes.
Am I glad I did? More than you can possibly imagine.
A friend asked me if I had any “unfinished business” with my daughter when she died. I pondered that question. Did she know every day, without doubt, that she was loved unconditionally? I know in my heart she would answer an unequivocal “yes.” Did she leave this earth, far too soon, but having actually LIVED while she was here? Yes. Yes she did. So no; there was nothing I saw in her life that I regretted for even a moment, save that I didn’t get nearly enough moments with her. If she hadn’t lived every moment of her life to the fullest, she might have been here longer. The nature of the disease is that it takes the lives of the active and the athletic faster than otherwise. But if she’d been here, safe and sheltered, for 20 years, I doubt she would LIVED more than she did in these nine.
This act of living, of raising our children, of balancing risk and reward, is not easy. And it is, I have learned in the most painful way possible, filled with uncertainty. But we owe it to our children to teach them to live like every moment is precious.
Because it is.
You may say, what on earth does any of this have to do with an expat magazine?It means if you are putting off your expat dreams because you had kids, and you think you now have to raise them ‘responsibly’ in a gated community in suburbia,and maybe you can revisit those dreams when they are off to college or when you retire, think again. You actually owe it to your kids to get them well outside of their comfort zone, to teach them to be at home in the world, not just within the protected bubble you create for them. Raise them within cultures where strangers are still seen as future friends, where eye contact is made and not avoided. Let them make mistakes at a new language and culture, and laugh about it. Mistakes are not to be avoided at all costs, they are simply how children learn. Other cultures, in my experience, do not have near the helicopter parenting mentality as I see is so prevalent in the US. I see young kids in other cultures hitchhiking to school, helping to chop wood, cooking their own breakfast over a woodstove. They ride horses through the mountains, they swim in streams, they eat berries in the woods…because their parents actually spent time and energy teaching their kid how to ride, how to properly use an axe, how to be a strong and smart swimmer, how to identify poisonous foods…instead of just trying to keep the kid sheltered from every possible risk.
Give your kids a childhood that holds more life than the actual years reflect, and they will grow up to be independent, capable adults who will likely thank you for it someday (I highly doubt that you will get a thank you for not letting them walk by themselves to school until they were 17…).