I was sitting in the middle of the long, white driveway that snaked its way toward the family garage. The day was so hot the heat from the pavement periodically burned my thighs. But instead of abandoning my project, I merely shifted position until I was propped up on my knees. While my backside temporarily cooled, I reached into my bucket and grabbed another piece of chalk. Carefully, I used it to draw a number 7 in the appropriate box of my hopscotch board. I stared critically at it for a moment, wondering if I should draw a line through it like Barbie, my best friend from school, usually did. I continued to deliberate until I heard my front door slam.
I looked up quickly to see my Mother carefully maneuvering her way in my direction. A giant purse was slung over her shoulder and her arms were loaded with packages. The heel of her stiletto got caught in the crack of the sidewalk and her entire body jerked with the effort of remaining upright. However, I was completely unsurprised when my Mom recovered from her brief moment of clumsiness without dropping a single package. She was nearly an expert when it came to walking in those shoes.
“V!” she called to me, “Come on, we’ve got to go!”
“Where are we going?” I questioned mildly.
“I’ve got to run some errands,” she answered, “Get in the car.”
Errands. How incredibly boring. I wanted no part of it.
“Couldn’t I stay here?” I asked hopefully, “I’ve got to finish this hopscotch board.”
“I’m afraid not,” she insisted, “It would be too late for me to find you a babysitter now.”
The force of my Mother’s words caused me to rear back so suddenly I lost my balance and landed unceremoniously on my butt. Shame and humiliation turned my cheeks a fiery shade of red. I blinked my eyes quickly as if I’d been recently slapped. My lips pursed dramatically; I’m sure I looked like I just swallowed a rotten lemon.
“Mother,” I whispered, shocked and insulted, “I do not need a babysitter. I am not a baby. I am six years old! I am a kid!”
“Well, that may be so,” she said, slightly amused, “But you still need a babysitter.”
Almost too stunned to answer, I replied, “I am old enough to take care of myself!”
“Is that so? What would you do all day here by yourself?”
“I’d finish my hopscotch!”
“And then what?”
“I’d go inside and play with my toys!”
“What if you got hungry?”
“I’d make myself something to eat!”
I was nearly dumbfounded. I couldn’t understand why she was asking me all of these questions. Could it be my own Mother thought I was a total idiot?
“Would you use the stove or the microwave without an adult? Would you leave this house without asking?”
My Mother stared at me skeptically for a moment. I stared back, face pensive, heart thumping in my chest a million beats a minute. Suddenly, her face relaxed.
Then, “OK, I will let you try it on one condition.”
I nodded eagerly.
“You don’t mention this to your Father.”
“And don’t touch anything you’re not supposed to!”
“I promise I won’t!”
With a satisfied grunt, my Mother whirled around and loaded her packages into her car. A few minutes later, after gunning her engine dramatically, she was gone.
Then the entire world blew up.
Actually, no. After my Mother left, I completed my hopscotch, wandered back into the house to escape the heat, made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and curled up on the sofa and watched some cartoons. It was, literally and figuratively, no big deal.
Later that night, my Mother actually let it slip that she left me alone all day by myself. My Father started to protest and my Mom started to panic. But before their argument could spiral out of control, I quickly came to my Mother’s defense.
“Dad!” I insisted, “It was no big deal. What do you think I am? Some sort of baby? I am six years old! I ride the school bus and everything!”
My Dad looked at me thoughtfully. “You were OK? You weren’t scared to be by yourself?”
“Scared!” I nearly spit the word at him.
My Dad chuckled. “Well, of course you weren’t scared! You’re very mature and independent, aren’t you?”
My Dad laughed again and gave me a great, big hug…and I never felt so proud in my entire goddamn life. Mature and independent? Oh yeah, that was so me.
Of course, this was back when being ‘mature and independent’ was considered a good thing. You know, back before we insisted on turning our children into perpetual toddlers or overcautious ninnies.
A couple days ago, I was giving a 12 year old boy a ride home. Upon arriving in the parking lot and seeing my truck waiting for us, he stopped short.
“Uh…where will I sit?” he asked.
“Up front,” I answered, “With me.”
“But what about the airbags?” he questioned further.
“Don’t worry,” I chided gently, “I’ll disable the airbags.”
“Don’t you…think it’s a bit dangerous to let a child ride up front like that?”
It took me a second to realize that he was, indeed, referring to himself as the child. But that wasn’t even the part that really got to me. What really set me on edge was that I was standing with a 12 year old young man, no more than 2 inches shorter than me, who was honestly and sincerely scared of riding in the front seat of a car. When I was a wee misanthropic tot, riding in the front seat was a fucking badge of honor!
Even worse than that, he’s not all that abnormal. I look around me and all I see are droves of frightened kids. Ten year olds who have not yet worked up the nerve to get on a bicycle, teenagers who have never gone swimming, 5 year olds who refuse to even wipe themselves for the fear of germs touching their perfectly sanitized hands.
When did childhood become so terrifying? When did growing up get so scary?
This summer, I took a camping trip with a youth group. We were in a gated resort at a site no more than 500 feet from a playground. A bored little girl, who looked about 8, dawdled by a picnic table.
“Why don’t you go over to the playground?” I suggested.
“I’m waiting for you.”
“Honey,” I told her, “I’m not going to the playground. I’m going to stay here and set up camp. Why not head over there and play with the kids?”
“Without an adult?”
“We’re going to be right here. We can see you from here and you’ll be able to see us.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Why not? Don’t you want to play with the other kids?”
“How would I even make friends?”
“The same way you make friends any other time. You just go up, introduce yourself, and ask them to play.”
That little girl looked at me like I was the stupidest person in the world. “I never do that. My Mom does that for me.”
“Are you kidding me?” I asked.
She shook her head vehemently in reply. So I walked her to the park and realized that she was absolutely right. That playground was jammed packed full of overprotective Moms leading nerve wracked children over to other nerve wracked children, introducing the nearly silent kids to each other as they struggled to hide behind Mommy’s legs, choosing a game for everyone to play, and in some cases, even sticking around to make sure everyone was ‘playing nicely.’
It’s no wonder why there are so many teenagers and young adults with a severe lack of social skills. Growing up, no one gave them the chance to practice. Back in my day, you either worked up the courage to ask another kid to play or you played alone. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for most of us to become first class schmoozers.
A child has a statistically better shot at being struck by lightning than he has of being kidnapped. Yet, I’ve met some kids who have had the stranger danger mantra cripple them so completely it’s highly doubtful they’d let a fireman pull them out a burning building!
I’ve met children who fear bears, tornadoes, and going to hell. They’re afraid of falling down, getting an infection, burning to death and drowning. They’re afraid to hike in the woods, build a tree house, or ride their bike around the block. They won’t go in water above their bellybuttons, they won’t go on a roller coaster, and they won’t introduce themselves to another kid their age. They can’t use a butter knife, they’re not allowed to stir something sitting on the stove and most of them can’t even play alone in their own backyards. Yet, we seem surprised when they turn out neurotic, antisocial, co-dependent, whiny little babies far into adulthood. What can you expect after experiencing a childhood of near constant fear mongering?
Listen, it’s a good thing to teach your kid to wear his seat belt and caution him against doing anything overly reckless. But when you overdue it to the extent the kid won’t even get in the fucking car, you’re doing more harm than good. We should be easing our child’s fears, not instigating them.
Ultimately, the goal of parenting is to raise confident, independent, well rounded adults. How can you possibly accomplish that when your parental caution turns into downright hysterics and your frightened children decide to opt out of growing up completely?
I’m sorry, but no one raised a ‘mature and independent’ child by inadvertently scaring the shit out of them.
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