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Free Range Kids—Justin Bieber and Preparing Kids for Life

My daughter’s big present from Santa this year was 2 tickets to the Justin Bieber concert. I don’t want to be gauche, but: SUPER PRICEY! BIG SPLURGE!

I figured my husband or I would take her, though neither of us are huge into Bieber—It’s not like she could just go by herself. But her 15-year-old brother asked if he could go. Whether it was his ironic interest in Bieber or his slightly less ironic interest in the opening act (Carly Rae Jepson) or just the fact that big concerts are always fun, I can’t say. I was very happy that he wanted to go with her. There’s a bit of a rift between them in terms of musical taste. They don’t love the same kinds of music and each of them (like everyone) thinks they have the best taste. Coming together for the Bieber concert was a coup for brother-sister diplomacy.

The concert is an hour away from our town. It would be a big pain to get them to the concert, but it was worth it for me to have them share the experience. My friend’s daughter went and she reported that her husband wasn’t the only dad waiting in the parking lot for the duration of the concert. So devoted, us parents.

I have kids aged 5 through 15. I’ve been a mom for a while. I never really classified myself as a “free range” mom. Labels like that always fit so well on other people. But I (and you too, probably) defy classification. I’m complicated and don’t know what I’m doing—let alone have a name for my approach to parenting. Sometimes I cling and over-protect and other times I throw some caution to the wind. Sometimes I make parenting decisions out of desperation, frustration, and fatigue. Other times I agonize, obsess, read, think, and even pray about decisions for my kids. I’m a mixed bag.

I actually thought about the kids going to this concert a lot.

Obviously the safest parenting approach is to be very hands-on all the time. When I had really little kids that was my approach and it served me well. However, I think I have a tendency to engage in some magical thinking where my kids are concerned. My worry and paranoia can be almost superstitious. When things are beyond your control, it can feel like you are actually doing something by worrying about it. Like, I can prevent my kids from getting hurt by worrying and always feeling paranoid about it. I can’t. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t care or try to protect them. But worrying isn’t that productive and there are other things to consider as children grow.

Competence and a positive view of the world are among the things I want to impart to my older children. I don’t want their outlook to be naive and inexperienced because I don’t think that will serve them well when they are young adults. But neither do I want to scare them and teach them to be fearful, although that is a strategy I’ve considered.

I heard a talk several years ago during LDS General Conference. It was a turning point for me as a parent. If you are LDS, you might remember it. If you aren’t, I encourage you to read it anyway because it will help you make some decisions about how you choose to approach parenting. You can ignore the churchy stuff—It’s still good advice. The main point is this, “Encourage our young people. They need not live in fear. Fear is the opposite of faith.

And so I decided to have my kids ride the train alone to Salt Lake City for the concert. This won’t seem like a big deal to city folk. But the mass transit line that reaches my town was just completed in December. We aren’t public transportation-savvy. But kids don’t learn things unless you teach them. We’re planning to travel to London in 2014. Why not take the opportunity to instill some confidence and teach a life skill?

Because they could get lost. Because something could go wrong. Because it would be safer to just drive them and wait for them myself. Because if anything bad happened it would be my fault.

If I were parenting out of fear I would have decided not to send them on the train. But I tried to be objective. The trains are safe, public, and all ages are encouraged to ride. I believe in public transportation and it would certainly be more convenient than driving up and back myself. I gauged my gut reaction (my true parenting guide). It seemed like a good idea. I gauged the kids’ reaction: They were excited, not scared, were interested in learning the trains so they could ride them again with their friends, and didn’t seem to think it was a big deal.

The transit authority planned the whole trip for me and I drew a map. I told the train host where the kids were headed and they had their cell phones, just in case. They rode the train into the city and transferred to light rail to get to the arena. There were other concert-goers on the train. They had fun and felt like they were in a movie. They got there without a hitch.

The concert went a little long. (I had compulsively Googled the concert and studied the set list, which just goes to show that “letting go” doesn’t really mean letting go.) They missed their train. Deep breath. We had planned for this, but it meant waiting an extra hour for for the next long train home. We were texting back and forth and they decided to hop on the next light rail train which they took out of the city in the direction of home. My husband and I panicked. They were heading towards West Valley City which—of all the places in suburban, friendly Utah—we think of as the “worst” town. But they weren’t scared. They were game. My husband left to pick them up. They were heading to a station about 30 minutes away. I was tracking them with internet maps and texting them as they passed stops. Even though I felt fearful as their mother, I knew they were safe. I was pleased that they had a can-do attitude. I noticed that there was a police station right by the the stop. I was all ready to tell them to wait there and I would call the police if I had too. You can suppress those paranoid thoughts for only so long, folks. I was about a second away from instructing them to run into a church and scream “Sanctuary!”

They reached their stop and decided to pop into an In-N-Out by the station to order a couple of hamburgers. My husband was there to pick them up before they had even finished the burgers. They came home buzzing about the concert with posters and T-shirts they bought with their own money. (That’s another thing you have to teach kids to do, by the way.) The train trip was incidental to them—It just wasn’t a big deal to them.

I kept having this nagging feeling that I should have planned their trip better or that I should have just taken them to the concert myself. But I told myself to stop it. It actually could not have gone any better. I’m proud of my kids. They thought on their feet. They weren’t crippled by fear. They shared an adventure and they learned that Mom and Dad can track them, trail them, and find them even in West Valley City.

*My apologies for defaming West Valley City.

Read more of my writing at Babble and at my blog, Every Day I Write the Book.

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