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?
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 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.