When Ruby was a toddler I took her to an indoor gym class, to keep her moving in the cold winter. While she was climbing all over the equipment, another girl her age could neither climb up the very small ladder, nor slide down on her own. Her mother never let go of her hand, "helping" her all the time. The mother asked me why Ruby was so capable. My answer was, simple. Practice; allowing her to try.
This mother needed permission to let go. Seeing Ruby on the slide gave her more confidence to let her child try.
There is a notion I remember hearing when my kids were still too young for it to apply, that parents should look to local custom to help determine when to grant freedoms to their kids. That is, if the neighborhood kids are riding their bikes on their own at nine, then you know it's fine to let your kids do the same. Or, if most kids walk to middle school on their own, let you can feel comfortable letting your kids do it, too. The local custom part is important, as it acknowledges that what is normal in suburban New Jersey may be very different from the streets of Manhattan.
There's a community spirit to this reasoning, that puts the onus on making these leaps of faith--after all, letting our kids out of our sight can be seen as such a leap--on the shoulders of many families. The community spirit encourages families to trust each other, and to watch out for each other.
Parents using each other as guide-posts is a great way to work together to raise our children. But it can be hard to do this when there is little trust among parents, or when parents fear that only they can ensure the safety of their kids.
Once, years ago, my family was walking on the sidewalk with another family in a moderately busy area (not in NYC). The other family's child, age 4, rushed ahead with my kids, ages 4 and 6, who were playing, running, etc. My girls were used to walking behind us, in front of us, around us. Josh and I were watching them, but we did not insist that they hold our hands, except for crossing streets. The other family had different rules. The parents became furious with their child for running ahead and "not staying with them" -- i.e. doing exactly what we allowed ours to do all the time. I said "It's okay, we're watching them." But the parents shrugged us off, and punished their child anyway. They clearly didn't trust us, or our norms.
Without doubt, there are children who require special limits because of their own limitations. Know thy child, above all else. But this child seemed normal to me, capable and responsive. The parents' fear, and their need for obedience, were very different from our parental ethos.
Now that Bella and Ruby are walking to school on their own, I feel the tug of the variety of opinion on children's freedom. Some parents of similar-aged children bristle ("not my kid"). A few give their children more freedom than we do. There's no consensus.
So what gives? Aren't we parents supposed to be looking towards each other for guidance?
I wonder if this is a New York City dilemma. After all, NYC is not a neighborhood in the traditional sense, in that it's so big and diverse. So, like in all other social spheres in this city, we need to go searching for our "neighbors"--the folks whose ways speak to us--and elect them as our community. I reckon this applies elsewhere, too.
When I need to, I find my free-range parenting friends to buck me up and give me support. One friend in particular, who has a slightly older child, tells me how it's done. She told me what to say to Bella before she took the subway by herself the first time, and how to prepare her for the what-ifs. She also told me that Bella could do it, just like her daughter had. And sure enough, Bella can. We all need friends like this! Parenting need not involve reinventing the wheel in each family. Wherever you are, find your folks.