In 2008, New York based writer Lenore Skenazy let her 9-year-old son take the subway home. For weeks her son had been begging her to be allowed to travel alone and she finally relented by leaving him with a MetroCard, a subway map, some money and loose change in case he had to call her.
When Skenazy wrote about the experience in her regular column, there was a flurry of reactions that ranged from calling her a child abuser to appreciating the way she allowed her son his first taste of independence.
I remember reading Skenazy’s column when the incident happened and being in two minds about what she did. Was this right or was it being too radical? And would I ever be able to do the same?
My older son was only three then and safety and ease of travel factor in transport systems in India are vastly different from what they are in say, New York, but the question in my mind was, when would I finally have the courage to let him be on his own, without parental supervision in every step of the way? And given the way things are in today’s overprotected parenting world, when would I finally learn to let go?
My son is nearing seven now and I find myself facing that question again. We live in an apartment complex that is not ‘gated’ from all sides, leaving the road from our building to the park open to all kinds of vehicular traffic, from cars to water tankers. Sadly enough, the traffic peaks from 5 pm in the evening, just when children are out to play.
I would love to send my son out to the park alone, he’s at that age when he needs to go out and make friends on his own without mom hovering in the background. But even if I trusted him to safely keep to the (non existent) sidewalk and reach the park, do I trust the speeding cars, tankers and trucks? No I don’t and would rather not take that risk. At least till he is eight.
We are mostly a generation of overprotecting parents. “By the time I was seven, I would walk to the grocery store across in the locality and buy eggs for Ma,” remembers a friend who would cycle to said grocery store through roads teeming with scooters, rickshaws, cows and bikes. But the world was a safer place then, he reasons, because he wouldn’t let his 8 year old girl do the same thing now. “Not until she is at least 12 or 13.”
Are we ruining our kids’ lives and depriving them of some much needed life skills? In his book No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, author Tim Gill points out that activities that previous generations of children enjoyed without a second thought have now been labelled as dangerous and the adults who permit them branded as irresponsible. He says that childhood, especially the crucial years between 5 and 11, is being undermined by the growth of risk aversion and its intrusion into every aspect of children’s lives, restricting children’s play, limiting their freedom of movement.
This in turn constrains their exploration of physical, social and virtual worlds. The author is talking about UK here, but the situation could apply to India as well.
Most parents I know (including yours truly) do not let their children venture out much on their own. Our justifications are unsafe roads, unsafe play areas and of course, an overall unsafe world.
We are being overprotective of course. But I trust that when I finally let him be on his own (another year), it won’t be too late for him to face the opportunities and experiences that will allow him to stand his ground and teach him to overcome his fears. Yes, but the solo bus or metro ride is still a few years away.