Monday, 17 December 2012

Panicked Parenting

I had a nightmare last night. I dreamt that I took Jess to the park but left her to walk home on her own. She vanished for ages and then came home with a woman who had found her. The woman was a nurse and started proceedings to have her removed from me. I vividly remember running down the road searching for Jess and this woman, sobbing and calling for her. I woke up shaking and on the verge of tears.

I often have frightening dreams and since Jess was born, around 85% of them are about her. If you asked me what my worst fear was, about 5 years ago I would have replied ‘loneliness’ – not being on my own, but losing the people I am closest to. Now, not surprisingly, it’s something happening to Jess.

I don’t think I’m too over protective. I am always tempted to watch her like a hawk, but I give her as much freedom as I can. I endeavour not to be a ‘helicopter parent’ although I don’t think I could call myself a ‘free-range parent’ either. I try to strike a balance between keeping her safe and allowing her to explore.

I am guilty of doing too much for her. If I’m rushing to get ready for work, it’s so much quicker to get her dressed myself; I’m not the most patient of people! I’m trying to back off and it is definitely easier now that she can reach the light switches – when I had to go upstairs to put the light on so she could get something, it was easier to just do it myself. I am trying to be more hands off but it does go against my nature!

You are probably familiar with the terms ‘helicopter parent’ and ‘free-range parent’. I have some sympathy with both schools of thought. If you haven’t got a clue what I’m on about, a helicopter parent is one who hovers over their child, limiting their freedom or keeping them safe depending on your point of view. A free range parent is one who gives their child freedom to do their own thing, encouraging them to be independent but also protecting them less.

It’s tempting to wrap our kids in cotton wool. Every time I switch on the television or pick up a newspaper, there seems to be another story about children being abused or abducted. I put on a cartoon for Jess a couple of days ago and found myself watching a newsflash about the horrific school shooting in Connecticut. If something so terrible can happen while our kids are ‘safe’ at school, how can we let them out of our sight? If something happened to them while they were playing in the garden or walking to the local shop, how would we ever forgive ourselves?

Let’s talk about Madeline McCann. No parent deserves to go through what her parents must be going through every day of their lives. To wonder where your child is, if she’s alive, if she’s in pain, and at the same time know that if you hadn’t left her alone she’d probably still be with you; how do you live with that?

If you were the parent of one of the children shot in Connecticut, how would you feel if your kid had complained of a headache and hadn’t wanted to go to school that day? I’m sure it can’t just be me that would beat myself up every day for the rest of my life for making them go. We know that those families cannot be blamed one iota. They did nothing wrong. And yet I would put money on the fact that most of them will be asking themselves what they could have done differently. Did they choose the wrong school? Did they check the security properly? Did they see someone acting suspiciously? What could they have done to keep their child safe?

Despite all this, we know logically that for the most part, the odds of something happening to our children are slim. Whether we are scared of someone taking our children away or them being hit by a car, we know that the chances are very small. And of course, we put safeguards in place. We teach our kids how to cross the road. We tell them not to go with strangers. We lock our doors.

But where do we draw the line? Do we stop our kids playing in the garden? Going to the park? Having sleepovers? Walking home from school? How small does a chance have to be before we take it?

Maybe we should just keep our kids under lock and key where we can see them.

But if we do, what kind of childhood are we giving them? A safe one perhaps, but a very limited one. A huge part of learning comes from developing independence and exploration. If our children don’t get chance to run around outside, playing with other kids and exploring without our constant supervision, they are missing out on a whole raft of experiences.

It’s not just these experiences, it’s also about learning to deal with things themselves. Things like how to stand up for themselves, how to interact, how to share and compromise, how to entertain themselves, what is safe to do and what isn’t, what risks can be taken and what should be avoided. It’s the first introduction that children have to skills that we use every day as adults.

Most of us did play outside with our friends when we were kids, or went to the local shop on our own. My childhood was more sheltered than most; my brother and I didn’t play in the street and our ‘free’ time was quite restricted. I can’t comment on whether it made much difference in the long run as I have nothing to compare it to. I didn’t go off the rails as a teen (it’s hard to go mad when you only get to go out one night a month and then have to be escorted), but when I went to university I felt completely out of my depth. I remember the first time I took the tube in London on my own; I was so proud that I rang my family to boast! I was convinced that setting foot outside my door after 6pm meant I’d be mugged, and found it hard to do things alone.

The problem is you can’t protect children from everything. I was approached three times as a kid despite hardly leaving the house alone. Once was with my younger brother, walking to the local shop in a crowded street on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The second time was in a packed congregation at church! And the third time was crossing a well lit road in the early evening was I was a teenager. Obviously nothing terrible happened; I had been brought up not to go with strangers and got away without being scarred for life, but I’m not sure what else my parents could have done to protect me – not let me out alone until I was married?

I presume that most parents, like me, walk a somewhat wobbly middle ground. I try to protect Jess from the big bad nasties of the world while still letting her explore and have a bit of freedom. I don’t want to be one of those parents who still insist on walking their sixteen year old to school every day; equally, I want my girl to make it to sixteen in the first place.

It’s difficult finding that line. If anyone finds the answer, do share it. In the meantime, I’m adjusting the fact that my baby starts school next year and that soon she won’t want me by her side every second, watching over her. Goodness knows how I’ll cope when she wants to walk to school alone. Anyone got any binoculars?

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