How Do I Keep My Child Safe While Giving Her Freedom?

by Turney Duff
Originally Published: 

I’m car number 12 out of 18. Two men in black and gold security jackets and sunglasses stand at the front of the line, directing traffic. With a wave of their hands they instruct each driver to move forward. We inch along slowly, haltingly, tensely, like tourists trying to cross the border from Mexico back into the U.S. The security guys look tough; they remind me of bouncers at a Manhattan bar I frequented in the ’90s. I turn off my radio.

It’s almost my turn and the security guys look me up and down. I smile. They give me an obligatory half-smile, a half-nod; all business. When I’m close enough, I throw my car in park, jump out and run around to the other side. My daughter is in the back seat (of course). She unbuckles and grabs her backpack. I reach in and grab the large black case next to her—her cello—and hand it to her. With a kiss on the forehead I tell her to have a great day at school, and I linger for just a moment as I watch her—dwarfed by the instrument—march toward early morning orchestra practice.

Just before she disappears into another gauntlet of security, I have to move on. There’s a long line of cars behind mine. One of the security guards shakes his head and waves his hand for me to leave.

As I drive home, I start thinking about this article: how different life is now from when I was growing up, starting with how extensive the security is at my daughter’s elementary school, where we live on Long Island in the New York City suburbs, as opposed to my experience 35 years ago.

How do I keep my child safe while giving her freedom at the same time?

My first thought is: I can’t mention the name of the school, that’s for sure.

That’s what it’s come to. I’m all-in when it comes to security at my daughter’s school. The nightmare of Newtown is never far from my consciousness.

By the time I get home, however, I start to wonder, what’s the cost of my daughter’s security? What’s my role in all of this? Every generation before mine, and probably every one after, will utter these words at one point or another: “Things were different when I was growing up…”

But in those pre-Newtown days, things were in fact different. And the current state of near-constant supervision is near the top of the list.

My daughter is nine now, and like most parents I know, I wouldn’t think of letting her hop on her bike and take off down the street by herself. When I was her age, growing up in Maine, I might come home from school, do some homework, head out on my own, get stuck in a mud pit in a salt marsh, ride my bike five miles to town to hang out with friends and chase a moving train (trying to jump aboard), all before dinner. And as long as I stuck to the script of being home before dinner and avoided emergency room visits, I was never monitored.

My daughter must be safer now than I was, right? But what happens when she’s old enough to be on her own, and when I can’t supervise? When I went off to college, I noticed some my classmates couldn’t handle the freedom. I mean, we all partied—I did more than most. But some partied with such immaturity that it seemed like they’d never been out of the house before. By the second semester, these kids were packing their bags because they’d either been kicked out or failed all of their classes. What was the difference? It seemed to me that most of them had very strict or smothering parents growing up, and were therefore kids who didn’t understand how to function on their own.

We all know what happened to the zoo animals from Madagascar when they tried to make it on their own in the wild.

Of course this isn’t a scientific survey, but I’d be willing to bet I’m not too far off. A quick Google search of the effects of overprotective parents shows hundreds of thousands of results which all basically say the same thing: risk aversive, difficulty making decisions, and lack the wherewithal to become successful in life. And we all know what happened to the zoo animals in Madagascar when they tried to make it on their own in the wild.

So how do I keep my child safe while giving her freedom at the same time? I haven’t answered that question yet. But a big part of parenting is figuring it out as you go. When you add joint custody into the mix, as is the case with my ex and me, the situation becomes even more difficult—even stressful. There’s no way my daughter is having an accident or getting in trouble on my watch. What would that say about me as a parent?

I asked my daughter what she thought of all the security at her school. She just shrugged. “They don’t really do anything,” she said. “They’re just kind of there.” I asked her if she knew why they were there. “For people on the outside, not the students but other people who are trying to get in,” she said. Then she was done with the conversation and moved on to do something else. This is her normal; she doesn’t know anything different. But I do.

Kids need to grow, experience life, make mistakes and figure some things out on their own, so I know that at some point, I’ll need to let go a little. I’m going to have to figure it out.

Related post: Please Come Home

This piece first ran on Cafe. Other posts you might enjoy: The Rules of Regifting, 17 Daily Habits Good Parents Have, Parents: Let the Ivies Go

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