If you know me, you’ve probably heard this story before:
When I was in first grade I rode the bus home from school. At least some days of the week my older sister must have done something else after school because I came home from school alone. I was five and either couldn’t work the lock, or wasn’t tall enough to reach it, for whatever reason I didn’t have a key. My mother was usually home just as I got home, but sometimes she wasn’t. She must have taught a class that got out around the same time I came home, and sometimes the timing didn’t work out. If she wasn’t home I was supposed to wait in the backyard for her.
I was five and I had to pee and I would wander over to the neighbors’ house. They were an older couple and would give me cookies and keep me there until my mother came. This drove my mother insane. I think she thought it made her look like a bad mother. She would yell at me and tell me that I should have just held it.
One day, I decided to listen to her, I peed in my pants while waiting for her to come home. Her response, “Why didn’t you go over to the neighbors?”
You see why this is one of my favorite childhood stories.
I was teasing a friend of mine with this story after she reported that her nine-year-old had been locked out of the house. In response, she sent me this article about a five-year-old who accidentally got left at the wrong house by a bus driver. The mother is stunned that the bus driver would take the child to her house, where he was supposed to take her, and leave her without ensuring that there was a parent home.
When I was sixteen, I took a plane from Malawi to Louisville, KY by myself. Two unfortunate things happened on this trip. The first is that a man asked me if I wanted to change seats so I could see better during the movie. I went and sat by him. He started kissing me and when he stuck his hand up my shirt, I told him to cut it out and I returned to my own seat.
The second was that my aunt met me at LaGuardia. She took me out to lunch and then returned me to the terminal, where I promptly fell asleep and missed my connecting flight. I had to take a cab to Kennedy and catch a new flight home. The cab driver was virulently racist and had many choice words about my parents leaving me to travel from a god-deserted place like Africa by myself.
When we got to Kennedy he refused my money (which is good since I didn’t have enough to pay for the cab ride) and gave me his card with his daughter the police officer’s name and number written on the back. He told me to call either of them if anything else happened and that he would come get me. It was an amazing and disturbing experience that greatly influenced my understanding of people and politics.
Should my parents have left a five year old alone after school? Should they have allowed a sixteen year old to travel across the world by herself? Probably not. In both of those cases a parent’s almost-worst fears came true. A child wandered off, a child felt abandoned, a child was molested, a child was left alone in New York with no money.
I know that compared to a lot of people, I’m on the “free range” side of parenting, but I parent very differently from my parents. I can not imagine making many of the choices my parents made. Still I have to admit that not only did I survive those choices, the sense of independence and capability I developed from those experiences has allowed me to go on and do more independent things (at more appropriate ages).
It’s natural to want to protect your children. I do not believe you have to actively put your child in harm’s way in order to foster independence. But sometimes your kid gets on the wrong bus, sometimes your kid loses a key, sometimes an adult fails to follow through. It’s important to remember that not only are those missteps very rarely fatal, they’re frequently just a little bit helpful.