When I was little, I loved going to the library with my brother. It was in an old mansion across a street and up a steep hill about 200 yards from our house. We would set out on our own with our due-back books — big kids on the way to the library. There we would read, chat with the librarians, hang out, check out books and head home.
What glorious freedom!
We did not know that our mom would call the librarian as soon as we were out the door.
“They’re coming up,” she’d say. Right after the librarian waved goodbye to us and handed us our books — due back in three weeks — she’d return the favor, calling our mom to report: “They’re on their way down.”
I learned of this conspiracy only recently when I started talking to mom about how kids need to feel free and be able to take risks. There is a lot of new writing about how the children of middle class American parents are over-scrutinized, over-protected and over-scheduled and how all that fussing is leading to the creation of a generation of phobic, risk-averse, inexperienced young adults who don’t know their own limits. My mom was not surprised that all sorts of research and social science is now piled up to support her natural instinct 35 years ago to give us the freedom to range, roam and take risks within a circle of parental and community protection.
According to a 2011 study called “Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences,” kids have a developmental need for the sensations of danger and excitement. They don’t need to take great risks, but they need to feel like what they’re doing is risky. It is a form of exposure therapy that allows children to face, understand and overcome fears. Author Ellen Sandseter writes that parents’ “fear of children being harmed may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”
In other words, by protecting our kids from the things we fear, we fail to prepare them with the tools to manage and overcome fears. In Sandseter’s report, she cites another study that shows that children who hurt themselves by falling from heights between the ages of 5 and 9 years old are less likely to be afraid of heights when they reach 18.
“Risky play with great heights will provide a desensitizing or habituating experience,” she explained.
As elementary school kids in Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood, my brother and I could “go play” in the neighborhood for hours — we’d find the other kids and splash in the public fountain up the block, play ball under the “no ball playing” sign in the pocket park, have osage orange fights in the empty lot behind the library, build forts in a trash strewn little stretch of brush, fill the alleys with our whoops and hollers. Within a four block area, we roamed free and risked everything — we had an expansive feeling of “this is our place” and no one else knows about it. It was so wonderful and powerful to have secrets and secret places.
It never occurred to us that we were being watched and protected. We had no idea that this relatively harmless anarchic rabble-rousing was scrutinized by various adults who knew our home number by heart. If we stepped too far out of line or if anything got out of hand, it was reported. Mom always knew and we took her omniscience for granted. In retrospect, it was probably as comforting as it was annoying.
My husband and I have been experimenting with this kind of freedom with our 7-year-old Rosena. But we live in a different time and our peers are not on board with this. When my friend Claire and I decided to let our older kids (Rosena and Claire’s 6-year-old son Gus) go to the park together on their own, a mom friend of ours was convinced that someone would call Child Protective Services on us, and an otherwise mild-mannered dad friend told his wife that “if Claire and Frida let the kids go to the park alone, I’ll have to watch over them.” Others warned that our kids would definitely get hit crossing the street and that we should follow at a distance so we could intervene when the crazies start to mess with them. We finally aborted “Operation Kid Freedom” because it caused such controversy in our circle of friends.
But, all this talking about freedom meant that when we needed them, our kids stepped up into real responsibility. Recently, Claire and I were at the beach. It was a two mile walk back to the car. We each had three kids, and only Rosena and Gus could muster the mojo for the long march back to the car. We also had a lot of beach accessories, including a tent and a lot of food and no stroller. How did we end up here? That’s a whole other story and it involves a third mom leaving early with her older kids, who had helped carry everything there.
Suddenly, the same kids who were not allowed to walk four blocks on their own were now tasked with saving us all.
“Okay, Rosena,” I said. “I have a mission for you two. Take this key. Run back to the car. Get the stroller and come back. We’ll start walking, but we can’t make it all the way without the stroller.” The boy was a little reluctant, but Rosena was so gung-ho that he was swept along. And off they went.
As we began to trudge our way to the car, each of us carrying a kid on our back along with two huge bags — while also trying to induce our toddlers to walk with us, by singing, playing games and offering snacks — I imagined all the things that could go wrong on this mission. They could lose the key (totally possible). They could get lost (unlikely, as there is just one trail). They could get kidnapped or car jacked (also unlikely, right? After all, they are big and strong and the park is packed with people). They could get tired and bored and give up (totally possible). One or both of them could get hurt (also totally possible).
I worried the whole time. But none of those things happened and before too long, there they were — sweaty, breathless and triumphant, one pushing the other in the stroller.
“We did it. We did it,” they proclaimed.
Claire and I were so relieved and grateful. We piled all the stuff in the stroller because — oh yeah — the little kids now wanted to walk like their big siblings and not be carried or sit in the stroller.
In the car and all packed up, the little kids fell asleep before we drove out of the park. I crooned over Rosena’s success and asked her lots of questions.
“Were you scared?”
“Was it hard to open the trunk?”
“Was it hard to get the stroller opened?”
“We figured it out.”
“Are you so proud of yourself?”
After a few minutes of quiet, she asked, “Frida, what would you have done without us?”
“I have no idea, Rosena. I honestly have no idea. You saved the day.”
We stopped for soft serve on the way home and she savored it, stuck between her sleeping siblings. But I think knowing that we needed her was reward enough.
In talking over “Operation Kid Freedom” with our friends, Claire and I were shut down by the what ifs and worst-case scenarios. But after seeing what our kids can accomplish, this is my new conclusion: This is our home. This is our community. And it is our kids’ home and community too. If our community isn’t safe for our kids, we need to make it safer, not keep them inside. So, that’s our fall project: “Operation Kid Community.”