Maybe it was the Bloody Mary at lunch, maybe it was the fact that I was on a bike in Brooklyn for the very first time and I felt like I was a kid again, riding free and easy like I did growing up in Tucson. But I didn’t even stop to think for a second one recent Sunday before sending my 7-year-old into the Ninth Street Playground by himself to swing while I continued blissfully along the new controversial bike path.
“You go, honey, I’ll meet you,” I said. I gave him no tornado disaster plan, no cellphone, no laundry list of who to look out for or not talk to along the way. I just left.
It didn’t occur to me until after I was sailing along freely that such a thing as sending a 7-year-old into the park alone is just not done around these parts. I returned in 10 minutes, then, rather than the half hour or more that I wanted to ride, but I stopped to wonder why.
Earlier, Oscar had taken the car key and run outside and across the street to get his scooter from the car, something, again, that I hadn’t questioned until after the fact. Then, though, I had a sharp pang when I thought of the cars that turn fast onto our busy street from Seventh Avenue and zoom down. I horrormagined his sweet self being mowed down. I was glad this only occurred to me after he’d gone, glad that I had sent him out easily and not nervously except to say gently, “Make sure you look both ways before you cross.” He, of course, was fine.
In discussing child leash length with a friend later, I copped to having left my son at the playground, and letting him cross the street alone, somewhat sheepishly. Was it the right thing to do?
“I know they need freedom,” I said, “but then I almost get hit 100 times a day crossing the street around here.”
She nodded in agreement and then, as people often do when you share first, she came clean, looking around first to make sure no one else was within earshot, to ensure that she wouldn’t be reported on Park Slope Parents.
“I actually lost my kids recently,” she said. “In the park, for like 25 minutes.”
I might have sucked in my breath when she said it, not judging, just imagining what that must have been like, for her and for them, for these little big-eyed moppets, 5 and 7.
“I saw someone I know and she asked where the kids where and I had to say, ‘I don’t know, have you seen them?’” she said. It was the ultimate feeling-like-a-bad-parent moment, especially when you’ve purposely given your kids freedoms others believe they shouldn’t have because you think it’s good for them. In defense mode (to herself as much as to me), she said, “They were just on their bikes and, then, they were gone.”
I could imagine her panic, the kind I flew into recently when Oscar couldn’t be found after school, didn’t hear his name over the loudspeaker or being shouted around the yard because he was so enmeshed in his Harry Potter book.
Even if we believe that they need to learn to be independent, these moments are why we’re tempted to stick to them like glue.
But the lesson learned, in the end, was not that kids shouldn’t get lost, but that maybe that they should.
“When we finally found them,” my friend said, “I asked how the little one had managed up the big hill, the one I usually have to push her on, and it turns out that my son, who usually rides ahead, stuck with her and helped her. They were in it together.”
I imagined them then, like the kids in “Land of the Lost,” teaming up to survive against the threat of dinosaurs.
“They’re probably closer now,” I said.
She nodded. “They are.”
It occurred to me then, like it often does, how much of a disservice I do my kids by keeping them close just out of my own fears of the worst things happening, the things that so rarely happen that they are major news events when they do. It is hard, though, not to think of those horror stories we are now privy to 24/7 even though they are far the exception to the rule. Kids are almost never snatched from the park, except occasionally by a parent in a custody battle. When they got lost for a bit, they almost always get found. And then, if they didn’t like it, they themselves will learn to be more careful to stick close. If they did like it, well then, good luck. They will fly freer, and you will have to worry, or try not to worry if that’s at all possible.
It is an age-old argument in New York, of course, kids’ freedom, one being fought most recently by Lenore Skenazy, then-columnist for the New York Sun, who was lambasted heavily years back for letting her 9-year-old ride the subway alone. She still calls for one day every year when parents should take their kids to the park and leave them there, but I’d say this summer, we should do it on more than one day. Let’s believe in our kids’ abilities to make good choices on their own in little ways every day. Maybe then, they’ll be able to believe it, too.