I was at a big chain store with my children, and I had to use the restroom. My 9½-year-old son refused to go in with me, saying that he will not go in a “girl’s” restroom. He insisted he would wait in front of the door for me.
Though he wasn’t acknowledging it, this marked a significant turning point in our relationship: this was the first time I would leave him unattended in a public place. I had strong misgivings about it, and I appealed to him to wait just inside the door of the restroom, but he adamantly refused to budge. I really had to go, so I did not have much longer to spend on the discussion. Reasoning there was safety in numbers, I acquiesced and left him with my 7½-year-old daughter. It was the fastest I had ever peed.
When I rushed back, much to my relief, they were both exactly where I left them. Later, when I retold the story to my husband, he was surprised at my decision and wasn’t sure he would have done the same. This was shocking to me, as he is definitely the one in our relationship who is more relaxed and willing to give our children a little more freedom.
Shortly after that experience, I read the Hanna Rosen’s piece in The Atlantic about the over-protecting of our children. The article gave me pause when I had to head out to a work function and my husband was late coming home. He was due any minute, but my ride was ready to go, and the thought never crossed my mind to leave my son alone in the house to wait the (probably) five minutes until my husband arrived. Why was I willing to let my son, albeit reluctantly, be alone for a couple of minutes outside a public bathroom but not alone in his very own house? Was I overly influenced by my bladder in the earlier incident? Rosen most likely would argue that parenting has evolved to over-protect our children, and we are discouraging them from developing a sense of independence and important survival skills. Both occasions offered my child a relatively low-risk opportunity to develop these skills.
Surely, by the time I was 11 years old, I was not only walking myself home from school on a regular basis but also watching my two younger sisters. However, I do remember one vivid incident when I was along with my sisters while my parents were working. I saw a man outside doing some construction work on the house across the street. Against every one of my parents’ rules about talking to strangers or inviting anyone over, I asked the man if he would like some lemonade. I assume watching my mother offer workers a cold drink on a hot day influenced me. Once inside the house, the man saw we had a piano and asked if he could play it after he finished his drink. Once he started playing, though, he never stopped, and I remember my 11-year-old self wondering how I could politely kick him out. I nervously called my father at his office to share my predicament, and he calmly asked me to pass the phone to the man. I have no idea what he said to him, but the man promptly said goodbye and left.
Now, I think back to myself at that age and imagine all the ways that situation could have gone horribly wrong for myself and my two younger sisters. While this incident taught me an important lesson about strangers and boundaries, I cannot imagine having my children learn these lessons in that same, risky way. Rosen’s article is intriguing to me because, from a distance, I very much agree with her laments about the loss of children’s independence. However, as a mother, I weigh the low probability of something going wrong with the high cost of what would happen if it did, and the risk is not worth it to me.
Maybe that’s why my son likes Minecraft and other games like that so much. Perhaps it is his opportunity to play with scenarios of defense and survival. It may be no substitute for real life, but maybe waiting a few more years for real-life training isn’t such a bad thing after all.