In most ways, I feel that I’m the epitome of a modern mom. I work while still acting as lead parent. I love wine and coffee. I wear activewear a lot because taking care of myself at my much-loved gym is important to me – plus it has awesome child care. While I might be almost 40, I try hard not to look like it. I’m not afraid to rally around a political movement, and I’ve been teaching my kids that love is love is love since they started walking and talking. But there’s one modern parenting move that I can’t get on board with, and that’s the constant helicoptering we’ve decided is now mandatory to keep our kids safe.
So, I’ll admit – proudly, in fact – that I let my kids, ages 4 and 6, play outside unsupervised, and I’ve been letting them do so for years. Do I give them boundaries? Of course (they know to stay in our backyard and our next door neighbor’s if their kids are out). Do I check in on them regularly? Yup. But to me, allowing them the independence to play outside without me hovering over them isn’t bad parenting; it’s the exact opposite. Allowing them to test their self-sufficiency is a vital part of helping them grow into the able, brave, confident humans that I want them to be.
I want them to use their imaginations and take risks that they might not endeavor if their mom were standing next to them.
Some of my favorite memories of my own childhood revolved around unsupervised outdoor play. The neighbor kids and I would meet up and find some patch of trees to call a fort, then make up imaginative games that we’d play until our moms called us home for dinner. We’d search for turtles and frogs, get our hands and knees dirty, ride our scooters and bikes through puddles, and organize barefoot kickball games (not recommended) in the cul-de-sac we all called home.
I don’t remember our mothers ever being present, though I’m sure they vaguely knew where we were and probably checked in on us occasionally. I do remember those days feeling endless and free and teaching me that the world was as big or small as I wanted to make it. I remember my natural timidness being challenged by older kids and realizing that there was power in both saying no to someone who was daring me to do something out of my comfort zone and in actually doing it.
Would I be a different person if my mom had insisted that our backyard and neighborhood were a dangerous place that I should enter only with her by my side? If she had preferred I stay indoors and experience the world only through a screen? I’m not sure, but I don’t want to conduct that experiment with my own children.
I want them to play and discover new things and experience nature and its many lessons. I want them to use their imaginations and take risks that they might not endeavor if their mom were standing next to them. I want them to feel free and independent and strong, and I don’t think they can feel any of those things if I’m constantly holding their hands.
Motherhood is a tricky business. We want more than anything to protect our children, to keep them safe from harm, and we can never be certain where that harm is lurking. It might even be in our backyards. But if our fear prevents us from ever giving our kids the chance to take risks and fail and scrape their knees, we’re not keeping them safe, we’re merely clipping their wings. And I don’t want kids who think they can only survive in the world if I’m right by their side; I want them to feel like they can fly. And for now that starts in the backyard.