When my son Maddox was nine, I cut up all the food on his plate. Knives are dangerous! If one of us required the restroom, we both went into the public women’s bathroom and waited outside the stall for each other. Child predators exist! From kindergarten to fourth grade, I walked him the two blocks to and from school, carrying his backpack for him. Safety is paramount!
I was, admittedly, an overprotective parent. My oldest child has some anxiety and I tried to mitigate that by helping him navigate the world. What I didn’t realize was that my behavior was sending the message that I didn’t have confidence in him, that despite giving him the tools to be independent, I didn’t trust him to actually be independent.
Then I read a book that changed our lives: How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims.
This year, my 12-year-old son started middle school. He sets an alarm, and gets up and dressed by 6:15. He takes out the dogs, cleans up after them, feeds them, makes his breakfast and packs his lunch, (usually) brushes his teeth, puts on sunscreen, and walks a mile (crossing a busy road) to school.
Occasionally, on the weekends, I drop him off at Michaels or Target to spend birthday money while I shop in a nearby grocery store. On Friday afternoons, I send him into the frozen yogurt shop with some cash while I run errands.
He’s learned to budget, calculate tax, tip, and interact with managers and staff. He’s learned to ask for help if he can’t find something. He’s learned if he puts too many brownie squares on his froyo, he’ll owe more money than he has.
For the past two years, he has flown, as an unaccompanied minor, to visit relatives in a different part of our state. Those visits are a highlight of his childhood. (Even if he hasn’t yet learned to politely extricate himself from a conversation with an overly chatty seatmate. Earbuds, son.)
This past summer he added mowing the lawn to his list of chores. Unlike me, he can start the dang mower on the first pull. And no, he hasn’t mowed off any of his appendages or our sprinkler heads.
My husband and I are constantly preparing him to be in the world. We’re thankful for his cell phone and, yes, we keep phone tracking turned on. We cover the tough subjects like men’s restroom etiquette (no eye contact, no chitchat, lock the stall, and wash your hands!) and we talk about how to handle difficult people. We’ve discussed listening to his intuition, speaking up, and identifying people (nametags, uniforms) who can help if he needs it. We explain situational awareness.
Giving him all of this information, giving him this degree of freedom, hasn’t made him overwhelmed or afraid of the world or the people in it, but it has given him confidence. Being “free-range” has lessened his anxiety. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it works.
If we don’t teach our children to navigate the world at every stage of development how can we expect them to be independent at sixteen or eighteen or twenty-one? How will they obtain the confidence to “adult”?
Yesterday, I took Maddox to the doctor for an ear infection. As the medical assistant and then the doctor took his history, I wanted to jump in when they asked him:
“How long has this been going on?”
“What do you think caused it?”
“Are you on any medications?”
“Do you have any drug allergies?”
But I kept quiet.
And he had all the answers.
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