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Dena Vardaxis: "It scares me, this business of my daughters growing up. It scares me more to think that I might be raising children who need constant supervision."(pawpaw67/Flickr)

I have started letting my daughters, Marina, 10, and Roza, soon to be 8, walk a third of a mile to my mom’s house on their own. On occasion, I even let them take Aphroditi, who is 4. I know that some reading this might be thinking: Yikes! Three children unsupervised on a street! What kind of parent are you?

…I had to convince my spouse, my mother and, if I’m honest, myself, that our beloved girl could walk a short distance unaccompanied by an adult.

As I write this, it seems ridiculous to me that I made this decision with such worried deliberation. When I was their age, I would ride my bike to a friend’s house blocks away, cross busy Wollaston Boulevard in Quincy, Mass., and play kickball with the neighborhood kids using the four corners of an intersection as bases. We knew to halt play for cars. Being outside without adult supervision was the norm. Of course, lots of things that were considered normal in the ‘70s are now ill-advised — riding bikes without helmets, riding in cars without seatbelts, secondhand smoke. But I am not convinced that letting your kids play or take walks unsupervised falls into that category.

I recently watched as a mother directed her daughter, who looked to be 10 or 11, as she crossed about 50 feet of a parking lot to reach her father. The mother held her arm in front of the girl until there were no cars in sight, then she told her to go and watched, worried, until she made it to the other side. I thought to myself, really? And, is that me? And, are my kids that dependent on me for safety? Do they not know better than not to step into oncoming traffic? I warn them to take care in parking lots, and I prefer to hold their hands, but had I been too afraid to test their judgment for fear of their failure and, ultimately, mine?

I don’t know where Marina got the notion to walk to my mom’s house on her own. One day, she just said, “I am a big girl now. I want to walk all by myself, okay?” No, not okay, was my initial thought. You can’t, because you’re autistic. God forbid anything happened, I would be the parent who did not properly supervise her autistic child.

At times, I do parent Marina differently because she has different needs, but I was ashamed of myself for wanting to limit her because of her autism. At first, I stalled but then, I tested her, peppering her with what-ifs. “What if you hear a car coming but can’t see it? What if someone stops to offer you a ride? What if someone asks you to come into their house?” She had all the right answers, and she beamed when I said she could walk to yiayia’s house “all by yourself.”

“I will meet her at the street and help her cross!” my mother said, in a panic, when I told her to expect Marina. This from the woman who had no idea of my whereabouts during most of my childhood. Though I know my mother didn’t intend it, I felt judged, sized up as an inadequate parent.

“Are you crazy?” That was my husband’s response. So I had to convince my spouse, my mother and, if I’m honest, myself, that our beloved girl could walk a short distance unaccompanied by an adult. Meanwhile, Marina was on her way, all confidence and pride.

The solo walk to and from grandma’s house is now routine. I watched recently as my two older girls set off, holding hands, stopping at the end of the driveway to look both ways. A driver slowed. Her passenger pointed at my daughters. Look, unaccompanied children trying to cross a street! I imagined them saying.

I warn them to take care in parking lots, and I prefer to hold their hands, but had I been too afraid to test their judgment for fear of their failure and, ultimately, mine?

I can’t know if they were appalled or amused, but they certainly looked like they were witnessing something rare and interesting. The girls crossed, and my relief gave way to a desire to let that driver who slowed to look at them know that they were well cared for and had loving parents. I wanted her to be assured that what she was witnessing was not neglect, but children practicing their independence. Good for me and good for them.

It scares me, this business of my daughters growing up. It scares me more to think that I might be raising children who need constant supervision. So yes, I’m that mom that lets her daughters hang out in the toy aisle unsupervised while I fetch something from the other side of the store. And, if they ever learn how to ride their bikes with confidence, I will be the mother who lets them ride to friends’ houses, all by themselves. Reserve judgment, please. Growth in progress.

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  • Kristin

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece! I am on a similar parenting
    journey and I suspect that the “protect them, and let them go” theme
    will rear its head in many forms as the years progress. I’m striving to
    recognize these moments as opportunities to embrace rather than fear.
    It’s not easy! But it is helpful to read pieces like this — thank you
    for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  • Nicole

    Kids are as capable as they ever were, and the world is a safer place than it was in the 1970s, believe it or not. Crime is down in most towns and cities in our country, kids are better warned about dangers, and all you have to do to be in touch with them in an instant is hand them a cell phone. The only thing that has changed for the worse is the irrational fear of adults, fueled by 24 hour news that makes us perceive our world incorrectly as fraught with danger at every corner. There are many parents out there who know how crazy this way of thinking has become and are trying to raise capable, independent children. We need to speak up and fight back against the perception that “good” parenting means wrapping your kid in a sheet of bubble wrap and watching them like a hawk until they are in their twenties. A good parent raises a child who can meet the challenges of life with confidence, from the first time they walk alone to a friend’s house to the day they pack their bags for college, and gives them every opportunity to find out how capable they are.

  • shooclaire

    I decided to let my 2 kids walk to and from school on their own last year at ages 10 and 8. It’s 2 blocks, less than a .25 of a mile and I had so many people freak out when I told them. At the end of the block there’s a crossing guard even. A few weeks after this started, my daughter (the elder sibling) said about another household task I gave her, “I can do it, don’t worry. It’s just like walking to school. You’re giving us more responsibility a little at a time so we learn.” She hit the nail on the head. She’s learning responsibility and independence, the belief/knowledge that she can do things on her own.

    Of course this year she’ll be getting on the bus (picks her up on our block) to middle school and I’m back to debating whether I should let my 9 year old son walk to school alone. I worried less about them because they were together. Logic says he’d be just fine but having so many people express such overwhelming fear about it makes me feel just like writer.

  • Siah Tichaona Chinyelu

    Worries like this (if your child(ren) know the rules about crossing the street), as legitimate as they are, pale in comparison to worrying that your child may not make it wherever they are going because the police who, it is alleged, are there to protect and serve, act as judge and jury and shoot your child(ren) dead in the street. #ferguson #dontshootmyhandsareup

  • sari c

    I live in a quiet 3 street neighborhood and the only traffic consists of the residents who live in it. My 5 1/2 year old rides her bike or walks to the end of the street to play with her best friend at least once a week. I began to let her play in the front yard/driveway by herself for limited stretches of time (30-60 minutes) at age 3. Admittedly, I can see our yard from the kitchen/family room where I spend most of my time. I doubted these choices often when I first allowed the activity to begin but I reminded myself of what these opportunities provided her in developing self reliance and free play. I think kids today have harder times figuring out what to do when they are “bored” because they have limited time for free play with calculated risks. I believe this type of play helps them grow and learn. In our family, the choices have paid off!

  • careyg

    It’s so tricky, but you’re doing the right thing…My 12-yr-old daughter just started taking the T, alone but with a friend, yesterday — they got distracted and missed their stop, so she called me and when I didn’t answer right away, she used Google Maps — which I’d told her about a few days before — to find her way back to camp. I was thrilled….!

  • Elizabeth Bannon

    Thank you so much for this! I tried to have a conversation (foolishly) via FB about this very topic last week. When I said that the world was safer today than it used to be and that I allow my children (5 & 3 1/2) independence in situations that I deem safe (for example, I let them stay in the car by themselves when I run into a store) I was not only yelled down, but called an a##hole and told that I should be thrown in jail for child endangerment. Study after study shows that children are much safer than they used to be. In my town, a friend’s son and middle school babysitter were kicked out of the library because the babysitter was “not old enough” to take care of her 5 year old. I agree with Nicole – we need to be vocal about the alternate ways of thinking when it comes to granting freedom to our children.

  • Melissa

    I took the commuter rail into town with a friend when we were in about 4th grade / no adult with us. We met my father at North Station for the Ice Capades. We took the train back home but missed our stop and ended up in Salem. We took another train back to the right spot. We never felt scared and all the adults around us were helpful and friendly. Would I let my daughter do that now? Wish I could say yes, but I do let her walk to friend’s houses on her own.

  • PCMacGuy49

    I get nervous when I see a young child following a few steps (or more) behind a parent in a store or on the street, particularly if the parent is mindlessly occupied with an electronic device. I might even regard a child walking alone on the street reason to call the authorities. I’ve never been a parent, so I keep to myself and let the chips fall where they may. Deena Vardaxis’ piece, and the comment stream, have given me pause to reflect on my own youth. At the age of twelve I was riding the transit system of Boston by myself or with friends, and walking the streets alone was not deemed dangerous. I was born in the city, grew up there in the 50’s and came of age in the 60’s. My independence was important to me then, and it should be important to parents and kids today. Thanks for the reality check – but I’ll still be nervous.

  • Emily4HL

    I’ve been in many meetings with my boss when his son calls to say “I’ve started walking/biking home,” followed by a second call to say he’s arrived. As the years progress, it went down to one call, then a text. Kids need to explore their independence, responsibility, and appropriate risk-taking to slowly take on more.

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