When my son was four years old, I would give him a $5 dollar note and send him to the little corner store about 10 houses up from our place. Pulling a rusty red wagon behind him, he’d head off up our road to buy a couple of cartons of milk, feeling like he was Buzz Lightyear on a very important mission.
What he didn’t know was, I’d worded-up the owners of the milk bar to expect him, I clandestinely peeped my head over the fence spying on him until I saw him headed for home and that I didn’t actually need milk!
My reason for doing this – was to afford my son some responsibility and adventure in our overly structured and highly protected world of raising children. When other stunned parents learned of this, my parenting style was labelled freewheelin’ at best and feral at worst!
It wasn’t easy finding ways to let my children be free-range in inner city Melbourne in the new millennium…but I kept hunting for them.
At 10 years of age I let my daughter and a friend (with the other parent’s permission of course) catch a tram into the heart of St Kilda, to buy bath bombs on their own. The look of pride and accomplishment on their faces as they presented their purchases to me, made the 90 minutes of sheer terror awaiting their safe return, worth every second.
I’ll never forget the first time I left my two children alone in a cinema or allowed my son to use the Men’s Room. My eyes filled with tears as I waved my daughter off to secondary school on the tram carrying her own body weight in her back pack. (I’m not sure why Year 7’s carry every text book they own to and from school everyday?)
And surprisingly, as teenagers that desire to provide them with ‘safe risks’ proves even more challenging. Recently I hoped and prayed, that the independence and resourcefulness I had tried to foster would really come into play. It was a nerve-wracking four days allowing my teenaged son and two of his mates to camp unaccompanied in the Australian bush. I had to ban all images of bushfires, axe-wielding psychos and deadly reptiles out of my mind as I drove away leaving them to set-up camp on their own. But when they returned and I saw the looks of contentment and achievement on their faces, somehow they looked that little bit older … and wiser.
It is terrifying letting our children out of our sight and it’s heart breaking watching them make mistakes. But it is an essential part of growing up; they need to feel the exhilaration of independence and the challenge of righting wrongs. And sometimes by allowing them to face major disappointment, it enables them to really appreciate their next achievement.
When I think back to my own childhood, I recall summer days tadpoling at the lake with a gang of kids, returning to our homes when we got hungry; our parents knew where we were… sort of. As an adolescent, I spent hours down at the beach, not swimming between the flags, without adult supervision – certainly not the done thing these days…and perhaps wisely so. Despite the tragic developments in Europe, statistically today is the safest time in human history, and yet our children's anxiety rates are soaring. Perhaps as parents we need to stop behaving like there is a paedophile in every playground, a kidnapper around every corner and run away vehicles storming our streets…because if we keep that up, we might just be the ones terrifying our kids.
(Specialising in working with children & adolescents, Megan Rees, works from her practice The Grove Counselling, located in the Melbourne bayside suburb of St Kilda East .)
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