Half-way through the weekly grocery shopping the inevitable happened. "Can you hold it?" I asked my six-year-old. The pleading eyes and crossed legs told me all I needed to know. We trundled the half-full trolley over to the service desk and headed over to the shopping centre bathrooms.
"Mum, can I use the boys' toilets?" It was one of those parenting moments - when your head and your heart split in different directions. My head told me that my baby was growing up and needed to be independent and responsible. My heart rallied against it and came up with a dozen imagined scenarios as to why it was a terrible idea. My head won out. I told him to yell out if he felt the slightest bit uncomfortable and stayed as close to the door as I could.
Within the period of time that my son went to the bathroom no less than three separate people talked to me about my decision. The first asked me whether I knew that children had been abducted from the bathrooms in the centre before. No, no I was not aware of that, but thanks for letting me know. The second told me, "Just let him know to scream if anything bad happens. That's what I told my kids." Okay, feeling really uncomfortable with my decision right now. A third person said to me "Is that that your little fella in there? He's just washing his hands now. We had a lovely chat. Nice boy." Whilst it was the kindest, most sincere of the conversations, the thought came unbidden - are you being kind or are you some kind of perv that likes talking to kids in bathrooms? I hate that. I hate that I have been conditioned to think the worst of strangers (in particular older, slightly unkept gentlemen). My son emerged from the bathroom, smiling and oblivious to my frayed nerves. It got me thinking about helping kids to independence and how to separate unsubstantiated parental fears from genuine concerns.
It feels like we are parenting in crazy times. There is no shortage of advice, judgement and restriction. There seems a much shorter supply of community, absence of suspicion and general kindness. The twenty-four-hour news cycle has rendered us hyper-aware of every possible nightmare scenario. We say things like "you can never be too careful these days" as though there are more bad people in the world. There is hesitation before helping a child you don't know for fear that kindness will result in confrontation.
We have a double-edged sword: fearful of shadows and a lessening in community spirit. I don't believe dangers have increased since I was a kid. But they have been magnified. I talk with my friends about the level of independence granted to us at a young age and how our kids don't experience that. We read articles accusing this parenting generation of raising kids who lack resilience and competence. Yet, when we allow our kids some freedom, that too is frowned upon.
When I was seven years old, I walked to school with my younger sister, picking up a few school mates along the way. I can't fathom my son walking to and from school next year and if I allowed him to do so, I know it would be met with judgement. When I was ten years old my sister and I would often catch the bus to say hello to my mother in town. If two young girls on a bus were regarded as odd or suspicious, I don't remember it. Now I am fairly sure someone would call DOCS pronto.
So, we have a tough question - how do we allow kids independence when doing so makes you appear a questionable parent?
I think it helps to talk to like-minded parents and experiment with independence together. At the edge of our local park sits a lovely corner store. My son and his mate like to walk up there together and spend their little bits of change. My son’s mate’s dad and I watch from the other side of the park. The kids are still in view but they feel grown up. We know the people that own the store. It helps to surround yourself with like-minded parents who aren't going to freak out when your child is more than an apron-string’s length away. There are plenty of ways to assert independence within the home. Kids should be learning to cook and clean. (Although I have been told that getting my six-year-old to iron his own shirts is wildly optimistic.)
As parents, we need to be realistic about where the real dangers to our kids lie. Statistics tell us that they are more likely to be hurt at the hands of someone they know. Part of independence is knowing how to keep yourself safe. I know I need to talk about this with my sons. How to act when you feel threatened, who to talk to, what's acceptable and what's not. Kids will always look for a space of their own. Somewhere adults don't follow them. For me as a kid, it was the branches of a tree and a good book. Increasingly, it is becoming the online space. It feels safe when your kids are visible and under your roof but we know it can be anything but. I know I need to keep on top of this and talk to my son about the risks of talking to strangers online.
I am going to strive to teach my kids independence and safety at the same time. I am going to separate the shadowy fears from the real risks. And I promise to support any parent doing the same thing.