Editor's Note: What happens when three protective parents hoping to build their kids’ independence loosen the leash a little? This summer, three families from different neighborhoods with kids of different ages found out. This is the second story in this three-part challenge. Read part 1 and part 3.
Part 2: Single mom in the city focuses on safety
Family: Mom and one daughter, age 5
Neighborhood: A diverse, Seattle Central District neighborhood near a community building, a field, and well-used bike path, with schools, parks and high-traffic streets nearby
Goals: Build community with neighbors and other single mothers, gain a better understanding of how “hover parenting” is impacting my child’s life, establish practices to help increase opportunities for my daughter’s independence and development
For one month, I tried to parent outside of my box. I explored what society is calling “free-range” parenting. Not only did I explore it, I ended up evaluating myself as a parent and what has led me to the choices I make for my daughter.
I had to spend the first few years of my daughter’s life in survival mode. Now that my daughter and I have exited that lifestyle, I find that I still hold onto the mind set that I was in during that time. It’s hard to live and parent while being overly aware of the dangers that are out there in the world. My mind goes to the worst-case scenario when it comes to my decision to take the free-range approach to parenting my daughter.
Taking on this challenge, I wondered how much of what I needed to teach her about safety she would actually absorb. With her being just 5, I hoped she would learn basic safety procedures. I taught her our phone number, how to access the emergency call list on my cell phone and the name of our apartment building. I also taught her my full name and how to physically describe me, in case she needs assistance to locate me in a crowd. I thought that it would ease my mind if she knew how to handle herself during a situation. I wanted her to be prepared.
My daughter and I live in a very active neighborhood in the Central District. The field and bike path near our home are very well-used, but within this active neighborhood is a lack of community. My neighborhood is not the same now as it was when I was a child. My parents were friends with our neighbors. The adults in the neighborhood watched out for the other parents’ children. There was not a single thing that they did not inform each other about. Sadly, those types of neighborhood relationships are gone.
I believe some of the changes our community has undergone have left residents feeling underserved and thrust into a state of survival, which leaves us all disconnected. No one has the time to get to know each other when they have to continually worry about their income and employment, discrimination and gentrification. People are not able to feel attached to a community when the neighborhood is trying to force them out of it. And I cannot feel comfortable letting my daughter roam around a community where everyone is a stranger.
Finding it challenging to connect with other people in my community, I tried to connect with other parents at my daughter’s school. Taking advantage of free tickets to the Woodland Park Zoo seemed like a great way to do this. At least I thought that it was a good idea, until we started to actually walk around the zoo with another parent and two other little girls. If this hadn’t been my first time taking my daughter to the zoo, we would have left early.
The girls were so excited that they zoomed from animal to animal. It did not help that they are lanky little things who can easily slip through the crowd. I have never felt such anxiety or yelled my daughter’s name as much as I did that day. I had to set an incentive for my daughter to keep in close proximity to me. Cotton candy became her end goal: If she could help me get through the rest of our trip at the zoo without my spinning into full panic mode from her running off in excitement, then I would buy her cotton candy. Of course, the promise of a sugary treat worked.
I know that bribing my daughter is wrong. However, I can’t fully explain to her why I always feel such anxiety when we are out in crowds. I know that my anxiety stems from my diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), caused by the previous abusive relationship we were in. I continue to live in that frame of mind even though we have safely left from that environment. This has been my personal struggle: How can I provide my daughter with the ability to thrive independently when I am worried about letting her do so?
Looking back on that time, I realize I was never awarded the opportunity to allow my daughter to be independent. I had to keep her close to me to protect her from an abuser. I keep her close to me now because the news, stories, scenes and lifestyles in our community make me uneasy. I cannot trust someone who is a stranger, even a neighbor, especially around my daughter. While I keep her close because of my fears, my worst fear is that she won’t live her life to the fullest because of my anxiety.
The challenge to try free-range parenting let me see how my fears are actually hindering my daughter’s development. She cannot develop into an independent and empowered young woman if I do not give her the opportunity. I have to trust that she will be able to solve a problem situation and remember the safety procedures that I taught her if needed. Since taking on this challenge, my daughter and I have decided to work on providing her with such situations.
We are going to start small, though.