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Country Living

Children should be allowed to explore on their own.

by Shelley Abreu

September 10, 2009

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E ach morning, after my two girls wake me, I shuffle out to the kitchen to fix juice for them and coffee for me. As I fill the coffee pot and their sippy cups, I stare out the window at my favorite part of our home: the small river that cuts through our backyard.

This morning as I look out, I watch a pair of mallard ducks ride the gentle current back and forth. The female duck tries to paddle upstream to our neighbor’s but gets caught in a swirl of water and is forced back to her partner’s side. Elise, my almost three-year old, laughs as she watches. Then she asks if she and her five-year-old sister, Julia, can go down back and fish.

Up until a few weeks ago, I would have denied her request. A chronic worrier, I don’t let my children outside without close supervision. But with a new baby in the house, I’m not able to accompany them outside as often as they would like. My husband, however, is less cautious. Just recently I returned from a morning out, to find him in the kitchen with doors and windows open. The girls were outside by themselves casting their hook-less fishing rods into the river. Before I was able to chastise him for his reckless disregard for their safety, he convinced me they were completely fine. He could see and hear them perfectly well. Furthermore, he insisted, both girls know to keep out of the water.

I agreed to let them stay. I took over in the kitchen keeping watch as I cleaned and prepared dinner for later. After an hour, the girls still content playing in the yard and by the river, I moved into the bedroom and opened the windows. They played for another hour as I folded laundry. When they came inside, they were ecstatic over their newfound freedom. I had to admit, I was just as ecstatic. For once, I was able to get something done without feeling guilty for parking them in front of the TV.

Emboldened by our success, I’ve continued to let them go outside alone. I keep the doors and windows open and keep to the rooms I can watch them from, but after a few days I’ve relaxed enough to pop into other rooms, to fetch the vacuum, a baby toy, or our cordless phone. I’m still mindful of the potential hazards of the river, but I also think I’ve been underestimating my children’s ability to handle a little freedom.

When I was three and my brother was seven we would walk to a local Country Store about a mile away. After we purchased some candy, we’d head over to a pond behind the store where my brother would fish while I played on some rocks along the shore’s edge.

One time, just as my brother was casting his line behind his shoulder, I sprang up in the air to jump onto a nearby rock. His hook snagged my chin as I landed. My brother leaped over to me and carefully extracted the hook. I was scared. But he reassured me I was totally fine. “Don’t cry,” he said, “It’s no big deal, I’ll get it out.” I didn’t cry. He got it out. And everything was fine.

Country Living

Children should be allowed to explore on their own.

by Shelley Abreu

September 10, 2009

400x236.jpg

6

This story is family legend now. People marvel at our luck, including myself. “We were so young to be all by ourselves,” we say. “We could have gotten really hurt,” others comment. But is that the truth?

Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Kids the Freedom We Had without Going Nuts with Worry, thinks maybe not. After she allowed her then nine-year-old son to travel home by himself on the New York City subway, and then wrote about it, she received an onslaught of criticism. Now she not only has a new book about the topic, she has a website that encourages parents to stop being overprotective.

I remember feeling safe and free as we explored on our own. Skenazy’s overall message is, while there are things we need to worry about as parents, much of it is exaggerated. She reminds us that statistics show this generation isn’t in any more danger than children in previous eras. Through her book and website she’s promoting a more laid-back approach to parenting – one that encourages parents to trust their children with more independence.

The funny thing about my own worrying is, I used to complain about apartment living when we lived closer to the city. It was a hassle just taking the dog for a walk. I missed the spacious yards and the ocean being just a short walk away. Now that I’ve seen my girls outdoors on their own, I realize I can trust them even with a river moving through our backyard. Otherwise, what’s the point of all this wide open space we have? Yes, I’ve heard horror stories of children drowning in rivers, kiddie-pools, and indoors in bathtubs as well. Every one of these stories is heartbreaking and tragic. The risk isn’t lost on me. But everything we do carries some risk to it. As parents we have to evaluate the danger, moderate the risk with common sense and good safety practices, and then allow our children to navigate the world with some measure of independence.

Back when I was walking with my brother, I remember feeling safe and free as we explored on our own. “Home” extended beyond the perimeter of our yard all the way to that Country Store, and the pond where I learned to be brave and have faith, not only in my brother, but in a world that’s really not so scary. It was an early lesson of life I hope my own children will get the chance to discover all by themselves.

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