It’s a Friday evening in the summer and my family is listening to a local band play at a small concert in a nearby village square. Dirty, happy children, running freely are dominating the space. My 6-and-a-half-year-old is prancing around with her best friend, fetching their own pizza and frozen yogurt, feeling excited and proud that I’m letting them be so self-sufficient. My 2-year-old son is chasing a purple balloon and dancing around with friends his own age, no more than a few yards away.
For a few moments, everyone is content. The kids are playing nicely. No one is roaming too far off or has a skinned knee that needs to be bandaged and kissed. The summer breeze is just cool enough and we’re surrounded by friends we actually like. This is the reason we come to these summer concerts, which are primarily made up of young families. So the kids can play together in a secure space without fences and iPads and fear — all the things that keep them from connecting to one another on the regular. But also, it’s so that we, too, can remember what it feels like to socialize.
My husband and I sit on camping chairs, close-by to where our son, Tener, is roaming, in plain view. We’ve only just settled in and have been sitting for no more than two minutes (as long as young children typically allow their parents to relax), when an older man approaches and interrupts us, anger spread across his face.
“Is this your child?” he booms, pointing to Tener, who is still closeby. “Yes!” we both respond, in unison, wondering what the problem is. He pauses to reconsider, then mutters a nasty comment about how we aren’t keeping a good enough eye on him, but trails off and walks away before we have a chance to respond. The man continues to send us angry stares, as we glance at each other, more than a little dumbfounded. A moment later, Ten waddles up and asks for a snack, and I’m quickly on my feet, almost forgetting about the rude encounter altogether.
An hour or so later, I’m trailing behind him, as he moves closer to where the music is playing. I’m letting him walk a few steps ahead of me. He likes to feel independent, hardly ever wanting to be carried for more than a minute or two, always tugging away if I try to hold his hand. But we’re in a safe space, there are no cars whizzing by or open flames. And it’s not terribly crowded tonight either, since there was a storm brewing that ended up passing over. He’s still chasing his balloon — his third one of the night after each one before it popped. I’m walking slowly behind him, watching him throw and catch it with sheer joy and determination.
That’s when I notice a nearby woman observing Ten. I see her glance over her shoulder. I know she’s looking for me. I’m no more than 10-feet behind him. He hasn’t been out of my sight for even a moment, but it doesn’t matter. I move closer to him, as he squats to toss his balloon in the air with all his strength.
“He yours?” she asks. I smile and nod, instead of hollering over the music. “Well, he’s about to wander off. You better watch him closer,” she lets me know. “Oh no, I’m right here … ” I say, which sounds like a ridiculous statement, given how totally obvious it is. But honestly, I’m not sure what else to say in my defense. What I want to say is “Would everyone just CALM. DOWN? He’s not standing right next to me for a reason, okay? So please stop lecturing me!”
But instead, I say nothing. The woman walks away with her head held high, no doubt feeling as though she’s done her civic duty; and I find myself filled with anger, that not once, but twice this evening, I’ve been reprimanded for letting my child play a healthy distance away from me in a community of families, under my watchful eye. I try to shake the unpleasant feeling, but still, I’m ready to leave. It’s getting late anyway. We load everyone into the car, drop off her friend, and head home.
The thing is, I’ve had encounters like this before. In fact, nearly every time we’re at the grocery store and my daughter offers to help out by fetching an item — something I desperately appreciate — there is often a nosy adult nearby, giving me the side-eye or offering up a word of advice about how she shouldn’t be wandering the grocery store alone. In their defense, my daughter is small for her age. At 6-and-a-half, she could easily be 5, maybe even a very capable 4. But she isn’t 4 or 5 — she’s 6-and-a-half and she wants to help, and it’s not my job to make everyone around us feel comfortable. It’s my job to teach and parent my child.
I know my daughter better than anyone. I know that she is capable of grabbing the bread from the next aisle when the baby is losing his shit (sign No. 1 that it’s time to get the hell out). I also know that she has a healthy fear of danger, that she doesn’t talk to strangers, and that she doesn’t wander off, unless it’s around the block. I know where she’s most certainly allowed to go, and that she never gets too far from me — it’s just not her personality ‚ and that she benefits from finding little bits of independence in her day. She also benefits from my encouragement of that independence.
But I also know (or at least, am learning to know) that the world doesn’t often like to see a child helping, or being too independent, or exercising their capabilities. Even that just means walking a dozen steps or so ahead of their mom in the grocery store. We’ve grown far too fearful to let them. Most people want to see a parent doing absolutely everything for their children, even if it suffocates them and infringes upon their personal, emotional and social competence. But still, that’s simply not the way I’m ever going to parent. At least, I hope I don’t. Raising kids who know how to help or accomplish a task on their own is too important to me. A flip doesn’t switch when they turn 18 and move out. They don’t magically turn into capable beings after being sheltered all their lives.
And so, I try to give them age-appropriate tasks and offer them space when I can. I try to not let fear dictate the way I parent. And I don’t fault people who do things differently, but I don’t feel it’s their place to try to control my children either, or impose their beliefs upon me. Every time I give my kids a chance to be brave, or helpful, or feel confident or independent, there is usually someone there to tell me i’m doing it wrong, like the good samaritans we run into at the grocery store, or at the summer concert. I tell myself that they are trying to be helpful, but I don’t really believe it.
Real help, real caring looks are different than that. It’s not judgment, or criticism, or even saying your piece, unless it’s absolutely needed. It’s simply a watchful eye, something each one of us, as parents, are often capable of giving and could use a few more of. Whether or not it’s needed, it doesn’t hurt when it’s silently offered. That’s how you foster community. That’s how you live and let live and walk away holding your head high. It’s not calling out another mother, or tearing her down every time you disagree.More On