Little by little my kids attain more freedom from me

by Jen Rouse
The Short Years
Oregon writer

Little by little, their worlds are getting wider.

Used to be, I wouldn’t let them play in the front yard alone. Now, in the mornings, I kiss the two big girls on top of their heads and ask them 10 times if they have their homework folders and their lunchboxes, and then they run out the door without me. Walking to school alone.

Or rather, not alone. With each other, and with all the other kids in the neighborhood who race up the little gravel path that leads to the school yard and drive my neighbor’s dogs into a frenzy each and every morning. But the point is, they’re without me.

Some other kids get more freedom than ours. Last week all five of us went to the school playground after dinner, where we ran into some classmates of my daughters. These girls were 7, and they’d ridden their scooters one block down the street from their house to play at the school with no parents. A friend lets her son–8 years old, the same age as Beth–ride his bike the mile and a half to his school. I wonder if I should be allowing more. I read articles like this one, about the shrinking “room to roam” that modern children are allowed; the grandfather in the article was allowed to walk 6 miles to the pond to go fishing, at age 8. I don’t let my 8-year-old walk 6 blocks, much less 6 miles.

Playing at the neighborhood playground–but not alone, because I can’t go there yet

I try to think back. Where did I go when I was 8? I remember riding my bike down gravel roads and walking across neighbors’ fields to get to my friend’s house to play. How far was it, really? How old was I when I did this? It’s hard to say, all sort of mixed together in a memory montage of tree-climbing and fort-building, set to the soundtrack of New Kids on the Block and M.C. Hammer.

I read sites like Free Range Kids, and mentally I cheer. But when it comes to my own children…it’s babysteps on tiptoe, not opening the front door wide and turning them loose.

They walk to school.
They play out front.
They’re allowed all the way up and down our block.
They can play at the houses of neighbors if we’re acquainted with them.

But they don’t go by themselves to the park, or the schoolyard, or basically anywhere else where I can’t stand in our front yard and call for them and know that they’ll hear me. Right now our boundaries are loose, fluid, changing depending on the situation. So many times, I parent not by logic or rules or guidelines, but by instinct. Does it feel right? Okay then.

That day last week, when our family went to the playground after dinner, the girls were showing us their favorite tricks on the monkey bars and talking about which kids in their classes which capable of which daring feats. Other kids were there–some with parents, some without–and they came right up to our children, and greeted them by name. It was mildly shocking, this evidence that our children are their own people.

Regardless of how much I keep them in, they do have lives of their own. They exist completely apart from us, and they have their own separate spots in the complicated constellation of relationships that revolves around the neighborhood school. They are Beth and Lucy. They are the Rouse girls. They are not “Jen’s daughters.” Not to those kids on the playground.

Eric and I stood back and watched, as our girls hung upside down, and chased a friend’s puppy, and picked blackberries that grew wild by the fence. Probably we could have left, and they would have found their own way home. Would they have even noticed? But we didn’t. We stayed until the sun started to set, and then we all walked home together.

One of these days we’ll set them free. I’m just not ready for it to be today.

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