‘You’re letting your kid do that?” The question hangs in the air. Accompanied by raised eyebrows and wide eyes, the surprise is clear. I’m letting my kid do something unexpected, as if I went off script from the parenting manual.
This time it was because we let our 17-year-old son drive across two states with a friend to attend a three-day athletic camp. But it’s a familiar question that’s been sprinkled across almost two decades of parenting.
Alongside the incredulity, the question is often laden with other emotions. Curiosity, admiration, fear or disapproval have tinged the tone and ensuing conversation.
Reviews on our parenting are mixed.
The first time I heard the question I was walking home from the park with my 2-year-old. Emily wasn’t in a stroller. Instead, she tottered next to me, her legs pumping with purpose while I kept a hand ready to grab her if she stumbled or a car or animal came too close.
“I wouldn’t let my kids walk that far at that age,” the neighbor said, shaking her head and crossing her arms over her chest.
“Oh, she’s fine,” I replied and kept walking, baffled that ditching the stroller could be considered a dangerous decision.
The question arose again when we let our kids strap on helmets and ride their bikes around our suburban neighborhood and when we let them stay home alone for the first time.
Sometimes the “you’re letting them?” question is accompanied by nods of approval and “me too” stories. Sometimes I get follow-up questions from parents who think their kids are ready for similar steps.
When I didn’t lend a hand on elementary school projects beyond buying supplies, when I made the kids prepare their own lunches starting at age 7 and when our 13-year-old got his first job this year as a soccer referee, I fielded the question with explanations about our reasoning.
I already finished elementary school and firmly believed my kids would learn best if they did the work themselves, for example. But forcing them to make their own sandwiches before school was more about not wanting to listen to another complaint about what I’d packed than it was about raising independent people who can feed themselves. That was a happy side dish.
As for the soccer reffing, anyone who’s paid premier team dues and tournament fees understands why we’d want our son to invest in his own athletic development.
But each time someone acts as though we’ve broken a code of control when we “let our kids do that” I’m a little surprised.
Each child and family is unique. We hit independence milestones at different rates. No growth chart marked on the doorframe will match another family’s.
This was especially clear in the weeks before Emily left to study abroad as a high school junior. I fielded the “you’re letting her?” question on an almost daily basis. For each person who expressed admiration at her courage and sense of adventure, two more told me they would never let their child do such a thing.
It’s more socially acceptable to cloister our kids and keep them close and controlled. But at what cost? At what point is the safer choice actually more risky because it keeps them from growing?
Grappling with that dichotomy of safety and risk is an inevitable part of parenting but it certainly isn’t easy. How much do we help? What and when should we let go?
“How to Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success” is a recently published book by Stanford’s freshman dean, Julie Lythcott-Haims. After seeing too many accomplished students who couldn’t seem to stand on their own feet, she wanted to know why.
Her conclusions about how parental involvement affects independence is a reminder that the hard work and sometimes painful act of letting go is crucial for our kids’ development.
Each time someone questions what we let our kids do, we need to tell ourselves that we’re not parenting to earn reviews or please anyone.
The decisions we make about our kids are based on who we are, who they are and who they’re becoming. And their independence is a long-term goal we’ve been working toward since birth.
Was I nervous letting our teenage son drive so far without an adult? Of course. But only a little bit. He’d driven that far the previous weekend with us in the car. I was so comfortable with his driving I fell asleep, a scene I could barely imagine when he first stepped on the gas pedal two years ago.
Growing up stretches them and us. We don’t always get it right. We’ve had our share of painful pitfalls and setbacks. But when we get some distance, we see that those, too, are part of their progress.
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