Free Range Challenge: Anxious Mom in the Suburbs

What happens when 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 — part 3 of 3

free range sign

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 third story in this three-part challenge. Read part 1 and part 2.

Anxious mom in the suburbs

Family: Mom, dad, two daughters ages 11 and 15, and a son, 8

Neighborhood: A working-class neighborhood within a south King County suburb rated no. 6 in WA to raise a family

Goals: Allowing my 11-year-old to walk to the store with a friend. Teaching my daughter to administer her own epinephrine, and to independently choose safe foods for her peanut allergy

Free-range parenting. As with many parenting theories, the pendulum of public opinion swings from one extreme to the other. I’m all for fostering my kids’ independence, but where does freedom end and unnecessary risk begin?

My middle child, Lucy, is currently pushing the boundaries of my parental comfort zone. Her friends often walk to a nearby convenience store to buy candy. Lucy wants to join them, but I worry. It’s not the traffic — the intersection is protected by a stoplight and crosswalk. It’s the strangers.

I know that stranger/child abductions are rare. According to the Polly Klaas Foundation, the stereotypical stranger/child kidnapping makes up less than 1 percent of reported cases. Many people feel that here in the U.S., we are living one of the safest existences in history.

So why do visions of masked men throwing my child into a car and speeding away still run through my mind like a bad movie? Because despite the reassuring statistics, hearing every abduction reported on the 24-hour news cycle can strike fear into the hardiest of parents.

But Lucy is almost 12. That short trip to the store makes me nervous, yet she’s probably old enough. As my first challenge, I decided to let her go. After all, she starts middle school next fall, which leads to a related challenge.

Lucy has a life-threatening peanut allergy. At her elementary school, every staff member, teacher and bus driver is trained to treat her with an EpiPen should the need arise. But when I called the middle school to discuss Lucy’s future health plan, the nurse recommended that she carry her own Epi and know how to use it. Lucy’s allergist agreed. We made an appointment, and the nurse trained her in using the lifesaving epinephrine. I even had her inject an orange with an expired EpiPen to get the feel of the spring-loaded needle.

Lucy has been well-educated and prepared. She’s responsible about her allergy and reads labels to choose “safe” foods. But could I really let her go out and eat something without an adult present? Even a trace of peanut could cause anaphylactic shock. The very thought gives me chills.

girl in candy store

My first two challenges merged when my daughter had a friend over and they wanted to visit the convenience store. Lucy walked with her friend and carried her Epi in a backpack. She was also allowed to buy “safe” candy and eat it before she got home. I fretted until she returned, bursting through the door, grinning from ear to ear, lips stained blue from candy. Her pride in doing something on her own almost erased my fears.

My third challenge was completely unexpected. My older daughter, Mia, is a ninth-grader. Recently, I got an email from her school. A “kill list” had been found in a student’s backpack. And when a rumor circulated that “something’s going down on Friday,” the police investigated. They determined there was “no viable threat.” The incident was reported in the newspaper, and social media lit up with parents discussing what they should do: keep their kids home or trust the police and let them go to school?

My first instinct was to keep Mia home — I mean, why take a chance? But my daughter really wanted to go to school. School officials informed us they would have police officers stationed at the school on that day.

My husband, who has more than 20 years of experience in federal law enforcement, read through the email and newspaper accounts. He decided it was safe for her to go. I argued against this with the two of them. Then Mia said, “If there was a plan to shoot people, now they probably won’t do it Friday. But it could happen any day. What are you going to do, homeschool me?”

I had to admit she had a point.

So my federal-agent husband taught her what to do if she’s ever in a situation with a shooter. He even printed out information for her to read.

Mia went to school that Friday. More than half the students stayed home. When she didn’t arrive home at her usual time, I panicked. A few minutes later, she reminded me via text that she had drama club that afternoon. I nearly fainted in relief.

I learned from these three situations that we can’t protect our children from everything. We can only prepare them, and pray. I don’t want to live in fear, and I don’t want my children to, either.    

Read Part 1 of the free range challenge: A Worrier Mom is Always Anxious

Read Part 2 of the free range challenge: Single Mom in the City Focuses on Safety

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