We were in the checkout line yesterday, my kids clutching their hand-me-down wallets and their LEGO sets, when I realized that, at almost nine, seven, and five, they’d never paid for anything in their lives. Not that they hadn’t spent money, because they had. But they’d never actually handed the money over and gotten change back without an intermediary parent. What bullshit.
By contrast, at age nine, I was already making my own convenience store runs. I went to the store alone — albeit with a mom waiting and watching on the porch — to buy bread when I was four. Four.
What kind of weak-ass, dependent childhood have I been fostering for my kids? I apologized profusely to everyone around me in the store as I then I made my kids unearth their money, count it, fork it over, take their change and receipt and say goodbye to the cashier. The world could wait for this life lesson. And I decided, then and there, that 2019 would be different for them.
2019 would be freedom.
I used to be a “normal” mom. I worried about the same stuff the world told me to worry about: child predators, horrific injuries, societal judgment. But the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve realized that we’re worrying in the wrong directions. Crime against children has plummeted, according to the site Free Range Kids— and not because we’re helicoptering, but because the world is generally safer for our kids.
50 children in the US were killed in stereotypical stranger-danger scenarios in 1999, the last year for which we have reliable data. To put that in perspective, about 1,000 were killed by family members, and 1,300 died in car crashes. Broken arms, stitches,and scrapes — formally the normal purview of childhood — have been blown out of proportion by the risk of lawsuits. Mothers call the police on other mothers for “neglecting” to supervise their children in their own yard.
In the meantime, kids spend all their time indoors, playing the social video game du jour, scrolling through their smartphones, and ignoring each other.
My children don’t need this bullshit. My children need freedom.
That’s why I’m stepping back. I’m giving up a lot of control, and empowering them with a lot of autonomy. In 2019, I’m letting the reins go and the horses run.
My kids can stay in the car when I run quick errands. Call the cops, I’m familiar with my local laws. They can walk into other aisles, even other parts of the store, while I’m shopping, as long as they stay together.
As for horrific injuries: the fear of this takes the most away from childhood. I spent a good deal of time wedged in trees, climbing trees, reading books in trees, and, a few glorious times, at least 75 feet up in a strong pine, eyes level with the high tension wires. My kids will get to climb trees now. Maybe not our magnolia, which won’t hold their weight after a few feet, but some of them. I will take them to specific venues for tree-climbing adventures, and let them go as high as they’d like.
I will let them set things on fire: candles, campfires, bonfires, all of which they can light themselves with the long lighter they’ve dubbed Erik the Red. And yes, they can dig holes in the backyard and fill them with water and cover themselves in mud. Why not? We’ve long traded functionality for aesthetics, and our only objection could possibly be an increased water bill. Which I’m happy to pay if they’re happily digging and sweating. No, I don’t care if it’s 45 degrees. If they get cold and wet, they can come inside and warm up. No more will I coddle them for cold. Like Nordic kids, the weather will not prevent them from outdoor play. They’ll dress for the weather and enjoy themselves, no matter the season.
In 2019, I will give them the freedom of yes. When my 7-year-old asks to use the hedge clippers, I will say yes and show him how. When my 5-year-old asks to strike a match, I will tell him yes and show him how, safely, tell him where to do it and only when I’m around. I will not stop them from running ahead and disappearing around corners when we are out. I will not stop them from wearing what they want, even when I think it’s too cold for the weather (though I’ll pack appropriate clothes). They can make their own choices.
I will also give them the freedom of responsibility. Breakfast time: make your own. My oldest can make his own oatmeal. My two younger kids can make their own toast or sandwiches. They can all do cereal if I fetch the boxes from the top of the fridge (we need to move them) and get the milk out. I am slowly teaching my 8-year-old to cook. He loves to make pasta and scrambled eggs, to use the stove like an adult. I will enforce their chores, like feeding the dogs and bagging the trash, and they will get an allowance for doing them.
My kids deserve this. They deserve to make lakes and play outside after dark, to light fires at night and roast marshmallows. They deserve to walk in the knowledge that I trust them to keep themselves safe, that I believe in their competence and ability. They can run around that corner. They can pay for that soda. They can spend all their money on cheap junk, because it’s their money and they can spend it on whatever they choose, even if I think it’s garbage. They can climb that tree. They can run around in the cold, then make their own hot chocolate. Because they deserve this kind of freedom.
In 2019, I promise they’re going to get it. And it will be glorious.