Parenting is a series of ever-increasing circles of distance you let your children get away from you before you freak out and pull them back in close.
When they are first born, someone is always holding them. When they get a little older, you let them hang out on the floor while you sit on the couch. Then you start feeling comfortable going into the other room and leaving your kid alone for thirty seconds. One day, you can take a shower with the door open; the next, you find yourself able to close the door. Your kids get older and more capable, and the need for constant vigilance diminishes.
My daughters are presently nine and six, and they have more or less free rein of the house and yard. I’ll go hang out in the room where they are, not because I need to be there to keep everyone safe, but because I simply want to be in their company. Conversely, sometimes we’ll all retreat to our separate corners for much-needed introvert time reading.
Oh, and what a day it was when my wife and I discovered we could just send our children into the back yard unsupervised. Sure we’d keep an ear open for catastrophic injury, but the list of things that would silently take out both my daughters simultaneously is pretty small.1 Sometimes, it’s nice to let those with childlike energy express that energy in a place that’s away from where you’re trying to do the dishes.
But outside of the house, things are a little more constrained in a way that feels different than my youth. I grew up on a suburban cul-de-sac and everything the light touched was our kingdom. Kids were running from front yards to backyards, through side yards, thinking we were only supervising each other, but actually being monitored by a network of neighbors who would keep both an eye and an ear out for trouble. My mom might not know exactly which backyard I was in, but she could trust that I was never very far from an adult who could let her know if I broke my arm.
My little neighborhood in Northside Richmond is getting to be like that – there are enough children to form a sufficient pack for semi-unsupervised neighborhood play, but they aren’t quite old enough yet. My 9-year-old is certainly there, but most of the other kids are a year or two or three younger. I imagine I’ll be seeing all sorts of neighborhood youth running around in a couple years.
Outside of our neighborhood, I am more cautious. But, I find myself making decisions not just based on what I think my kid is ready for, or what the relative risks might be, but based on how strangers might judge me. Let’s say I take my 9-year-old to a ballgame at The Diamond. Can I leave her alone to watch the game while I take five minutes to buy her a hot dog? She’s perfectly safe in her seat, she has no desire to wait in line, and I’ve told her where I’ll be, and to come get me if she needs me. Her relative danger is low, but I don’t want to be judged as a delinquent parent. When I leave her to get the hot dog, I don’t worry that anything bad will happen to my daughter, I worry that I’ll come back to a sarcastic “nice parenting” or an angry usher, or the most extreme worry – that someone has called law enforcement.
The same worry hits me on our regular weekend errands. On Saturdays, we’ll drive down to Velocity Comics on Broad Street and pick up our weekly haul of funny books.2 On the way home, I’ll stop by my PO Box to see if I’ve received any mail addressed to the previous owner of my PO Box. My 9-year-old would much rather stay in the locked, parked car reading comics than join me for the ninety seconds it takes me to check my mail. Here’s where I say: You should never ever leave a human (or any animal) alone in a parked car if they aren’t capable of responsibly getting themselves out of the car should they need to, but on days when it’s not too hot, I’ll leave my 9-year-old in the car by herself for two minutes. I know my kid, and I know that she’s capable of not just getting out of the car to come to me if she needs me, but that she’s capable of knowing when it might be a good idea to do so.
So I leave my daughter reading Ms. Marvel in the car, while I walk inside the post office, and for the entirety of the ninety seconds she’s out of my sight, I worry that I’ll have to spend years convincing government officials that I’m a good enough parent. I know it’s a ridiculous worry for ninety seconds, but I think it every time. I’m confident in this being the right call for my particular kid, but the worry is still there.
I know it won’t be long until my kids are fifth-graders, riding their bikes with their friends to the nearest store to buy candy, or teens riding the bus to head downtown with their friends, or high school seniors programming their robot cars to drive them home from school. I know what they need from me along the way is the confident push and pull of setting and easing boundaries as we figure out the world together. I’ll do my best to not let external judgment stop me from making the choices that come from knowing my kids as much as a father possibly can.
1 Sure, a team of ninjas could catch my kids unawares, but they’d be just as capable of ninja-ing my kids inside my house as out.
2 Current favorites: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Richmond’s-own Atomic Robo, and Patsy Walker, also known as Hellcat.