“Mom. Can we please go to the playground?” asks my eight-year-old daughter, Lucy.
“Not right now, honey. I have a few things to finish up around the house and if I get them done we will have time to go before we have to run a few errands,” I reply.
This seems to be the constant discourse between Lucy and I these days. Between my deadlines at work, my husband traveling and keeping up with Lucy’s school work and activities, there never seems to be enough time in the day for just hanging out and playing. I often wonder how my mother managed it all. She also worked full-time and raised three children. There are days when I seem to not be able to handle one!
Thinking back to my childhood, although Mom was always there for us when we needed her, my siblings and I never did play or hang out with her. I have no recollection of her pushing us on the swings at the park. We were always there by ourselves, or with other neighborhood children. We roamed our small town like ants in a colony. Anywhere you looked there were children swirling around in small bicycle gangs, often gathering at the ball diamond or empty field to play ‘capture the flag’ or build elaborate forts in the trees. Our freedom knew no bounds except how far we could go before having to return before dark. My best friend’s mother had a whistle that she blew at dinnertime. That was the signal for most of us to return to our homes to be fed, watered and rested before the next day’s adventure.
“You always say that, Mom! I just want to play with my friends.”
I wonder why I am so reticent to allow Lucy the same freedom. She knows most of the families in the area. Although we live in a larger city than the one I grew up in, we purposely moved into this neighborhood because it felt like the small town that my husband and I grew up in. Within six blocks there is a corner store, a playground and sports fields, our local library and a fire department. By the time I was Lucy’s age I knew the six-block area around my childhood home as well as I knew the back of my hand.
Maybe it is the worry of what other parents will think of my eight-year-old on her own that forces me to accompany Lucy everywhere. Our community is full of mothers followed by their little ducklings at every turn. When Lucy and I venture out we are much the same. I chat with the other parents but we have nothing to talk about other than our children. I don’t even know them by name but as ‘Sophie’s Mom’ or ‘Henry’s dad’.
A few years ago, there was a woman in New York who allowed her nine-year-old to take the subway home by himself. She was called ‘America’s Worst Mother’ but despite her critics she developed the Free Range Parenting movement, which in my mind only takes us back one generation to the freedom that I remember being given as a child. It makes me wonder how society got to this place where we are so distrustful of others.
I cannot imagine that my public school had a ‘safe arrival’ telephone line when I was a child. However, I remember how I felt a few years ago when I got a call from Lucy’s school telling me that she did not arrive on the bus. In the twenty minutes between receiving the call and my arrival at the school, I had gone through every possible scenario of what could have happened to my daughter. I became convinced that John, her school bus driver who was clearly a pedophile, had kidnapped her. He was obviously holding her in his basement, and I would not see her for twenty years until it was eventually discovered that he held Lucy and others in an underground cult believing that the world above them had ended. However, when I arrived at the school, the principal was incredibly apologetic because the teacher made a mistake and Lucy had been there the whole time. Unfortunately, I have not looked at John the same since this event.
“Lucy, you know that I have work to do. It won’t get done on its own.”
Did my mother worry about her children to the same degree that I worry about Lucy? It can’t be possible. Otherwise, how would she have allowed us the freedom that we had? Or had she been better able to rationalize away the fear and panic of what could happen to us?
Everywhere that I look, there are reports of abduction, rape, murder and terrorism. I worry about how to prepare Lucy for the realities of life outside of the protective shelter we have built for her.
A friend recently shared a Facebook post about a man who wanted to prove how easy it was to abduct children from a playground, even while they were supervised by a parent. By showing children a photo of his puppy and asking for their help in looking for his dog he easily led away most children. This post reminded me to warn Lucy about cute puppies, but it also made me wonder about how social media has led to widespread moral panic regarding our children and their safety.
I am certain that the threats have not changed significantly since I was a child. I remember one time when my friend and I were walking the five blocks to school and a scruffy man approached us with his fly down and his genitals exposed. We ran to Mrs. Brown’s house a few houses away and told her what happened. She walked us the rest of the way to school. After school, mom told me that she was proud of how we handled the situation. The next day, we walked the same route to school without incident, and life went on. Although I remember the incident, it certainly didn’t change me other than to give me confidence that I could take on what life threw my way.
“Mom…. I am sooooo bored.”
I made that mistake once, telling my mother that I was bored. I ended up washing hundreds of mason jars while she lectured me on the difference between jam, jelly and preserves. I could not escape the house fast enough to find my friends. How did we manage to keep ourselves busy without an iPod, Wii or the internet?
The exhilaration that I felt being free and independent is what I remember most about my childhood. In the summer, we ran free on the beach near our house. We knew that we were not allowed to swim but we jumped between rocks, built kingdoms in the sand, and – although we weren’t supposed to – we waded up to our knees to capture tadpoles that became the sea monsters in our kingdom’s moats.
When we were hungry, we either picked apples from Mr Jones’ trees or carrots and peas from any number of local gardens. We just had to ensure we weren’t caught so that the rabbits would be blamed. We would check all the neighborhood newspaper boxes and phone booths for left-behind coins, taking our treasure to the corner store to stock up on penny candy. We were as sly as foxes, and stealthily foraged for food that would sustain us throughout the day. Our parents did not seem to mind because it saved them money on groceries.
The largest threat that I remember as a child was running into bigger kids who would take a liking to our fort and claim it as their own. When that happened, we knew we just had to start over and be more protective of our achievements. We learned from our mistakes, and that certainly made me a stronger and more resilient adult.
I want Lucy to be successful in life and if it means allowing her to take more risks, then I need to allow that to happen. I want her to feel the freedom of making her own choices and understanding the consequences. I want her to make mistakes and I want to be able to guide her as she grows. I enjoy going to the playground with her, but I want her to not need me to always be there so that she will learn to appreciate her independence.
“Okay, Lucy. Grab your scooter and head to the playground. I will meet you there soon and we can head out for errands.”
“Really, Mom? You’re serious?” My daughter is filled with glee and doesn’t waste a moment for fear that I may change my mind. She is out the door in a flash.
I watch from the front window as my daughter scoots towards independence and smile as she stops to pick a bean from the garden next door.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem