This Thanksgiving, I put my younger daughter on a plane, by herself, for the first time. The airline attached a wrist band to her, like an all-day pass for an amusement park, and promised to escort her until she was in the company of her grandmother at the end of the trip.
I was worried. There were the big, enormous, blatantly irrational fears, like the plane going down in a fiery crash or some unknown virus wiping out all the passengers, my child taken from me forever. Then there were the smaller concerns, that I’d forgotten to give her credit card information so she could buy food or watch a movie, that somehow she’d get lost like a piece of baggage or that her drink would spill all over her in turbulence and she’d be miserably uncomfortable.
In reality, she’s a 13-year-old who’s been on airplanes many times and could certainly handle flying by herself, without the label of an “unaccompanied minor.” She can read signs and use a cellphone but, still, something about independent travel inspired terror and dread on my part.
Even local travel can spark the same sort of fear. Recently my daughter and a friend asked to go into Manhattan on the subway, which generated a flurry of texts and phone calls among the kids and parents about the wisdom, and safety, of such a plan. They stayed in Brooklyn.
The concern in the back of my head is that she may not have the street smarts or awareness to manage some random situation she finds herself in. I often tell her it’s easy to prepare for the routine, but handling the unexpected is the challenge. What if she’s on the subway and it breaks down, has a crash or there’s a blackout? If she’s alone will she know what to do?
I could make her take a class. After all, there are self-defense classes, bike-safety classes, street-safety courses. In fact, someone’s willing to teach my child just about any kind of safety I can think of (even how to drink safely from a straw and how to safely escape neurotic parents).
I could simply keep her home, locked up like Rapunzel, quarantined from life.
Another option, I could stay with her all the time. But really, I don’t know how to handle the random situation any better than my teenager. I just trust my judgment and experience to get me through, perspective that she hasn’t fully developed. Then I think of a friend of mine who described his adolescence as a time where either you learned to manage situations or you got beat up. I asked him how he coped. “I got beat up once, and I learned.”
As they closed the plane’s doors, my daughter sealed behind them, I knew if I was sitting with her, I couldn’t protect her from catastrophe, magically keeping the airplane aloft if the engines failed. As for the little stuff, how will she learn if I never give her that chance? She can only learn to handle new situations by facing them. I’d like to think she’s getting the chance in a measured way, through school, increased freedom in the neighborhood, but in the end, experience only comes by doing.