"helped" by someone who genuinely was worried about them.
What good is it doing us to harbour such deep fears for our children? And more importantly, what harm is it doing them?
I work with many kids who come laden with fears about the woods. It can take a few brief wilderness adventures to develop the skills and knowledge they need to overcome those fears. Gross motor skills like clambering over logs, climbing up and down trees and bluffs safely, and hiking long distances help them to feel confident about the terrain. Cognitive skills like assessing the safety of their environment and activities can take a little more time, but allow them to feel confident in their own well-being. Observational skills like noticing changes in the weather, hearing wind or animals, noticing the stability of limbs or rocks they climb on... these things give them confidence too. And they need this confidence not just to feel safe, but to be safe. If you don't hear the bear coming, are afraid to navigate the terrain around you, have no understanding of common bear-encounter protocol, is it any wonder that you might be afraid of the bear? And if you are afraid of the bear, the bear will be afraid of you... and we know how well that scenario goes.
The city is different, but also similar. Recently I took three pre-teens to a movie in town. I thought: surely they've been here often enough that they are gaining some confidence and can do it alone. One bus, one corner to walk around, six blocks and into the theatre. Same route back home again. But I went with them anyway. I noticed that they kept an eye on me. They didn't watch where the bus was taking them, nor when they should get off - they just followed me. All the way into the theatre. So on the way home I asked them to lead the way back to the bus: six blocks, cross the road, get back on a bus. They were bewildered! It took them about five minutes to figure out which direction to go back (eventually with the help of a city map that I pointed them towards). They became confused multiple times on the way back to the bus, had difficulty figuring out where to take the bus, and it took us over half an hour to walk those six blocks. I don't want to deride them. It was their first time, and I thought they all dealt with the situation I handed them quite gracefully. But this experience taught me that my kids need more independence.
No problem! I thought. They're unschooling in the city now! While my kids used to be the ones confident in the wilderness, now they're going to get confident in the city! And off we went. I am still accompanying them to various locations for this first week, to help them gain the confidence they need to navigate without me. After all, they are attending in various locations near some questionable drug and prostitution hotspots. Not that I have a problem with my kids being there - it's just part of our city that they need to learn to be safe in. They need skills like staying in populated areas, walking together, assessing strangers who might approach them to determine risk level, and how to maintain a strong sense of morale and dignity in a place where so many have been robbed of it.
So yesterday I received an email in red letters from my fourteen-year-old son that pleaded, "pick up time is 2:45!!!!!!!! Not 3!!!! Otherwise i'll be abandined on the street with no place to go." It was a mixture of humourous hyperbole and some genuine concern.
I'm not terribly worried about my son standing alone on a city sidewalk - but he is. And that is the problem. At the root of all our fears is the unlikely idea that they may be abducted or harmed by another person (or in the woods, an animal). Think about this for a moment. A person trying to recruit or abduct a child for nefarious purposes is going to look for a vulnerable child. I don't want my child to be that vulnerable child. That doesn't mean I need to hover over him and shadow him everywhere he goes until he's too dependent on me to look after himself. That means I need to let go of him and let him become independent.
And in the much more likely event that my children will be harmed by their own error, either of physical skill (as in falling off a cliff or crashing their bike) or of judgement (as in drugs, traffic accidents, or food poisoning) I would like them to have the opportunity to develop the skills they need. I saw many ambulances in town yesterday. Most were for presumed drug-related tragedies. One was for a traffic accident, and another I believe was domestic. These are the things I need to protect my children from. And for this they need to go out in the world without me and develop some wisdom.
Being unsupervised may unsettle kids, but it also gives them the opportunity and the need to develop some skills and look after themselves. And further, that unsettled feeling might kick-start their own determination to take stock of their situation and responsibility for their own safety.
I will always be here waiting with my arms open wide when they need my love or advice - or even just a non-judgmental ride home from an unfamiliar street or a bad trip. My dear friend said that having children is like having your heart walking around in the world separate from you. So as parents we can't just hold on and stifle those hearts until they wither; we have to be willing to pick up the pieces again and again and again.