One of my clearest childhood memories is a summer day when my best friend came over while both our moms were at work. We were sitting on the burnt orange shag carpet in our house, when the episode of ChiPs we were watching was interrupted by the sound of sirens wailing. We grabbed our sandwiches and walked down the street, then sat in the grass behind a neighbor’s house and watched as flames engulfed it.
People were running in and out, carrying out dining room tables, photo albums, stacks of dishes, anything valuable. That memory was imprinted in both of our minds for years—yes, partly as bad dreams and sleepless nights. But also as independence and a sense of being grown-up in our little 11-year-old bodies.
I’ve never wondered what impact that day had on my mom.
She worked at the small private school I attended, and often my sister and I went to work with her. We’d play with the other faculty kids all over campus while our parents worked.
I don’t know if my mom was afraid for me to stay home after the fire, but I know she let me stay home. I didn’t have a cell phone, of course. No GPS tracker for my sneakers. All she could do was call the moms she knew up and down the street, asking if they’d seen the kids running around to check in on me.
Of course, moms today are trained to be afraid of the danger lurking at every corner of our kids’ childhoods. My NextDoor alerts let me know that no one, and I mean no one, stops at a stop sign in our neighborhood. Facebook warns me of online predators and kidnappers. And the ads, so many ads, for thousands of ways to protect my kids.
Anything could go wrong at any moment. A good mom is prepared. A good mom is in control.
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I’ve wondered if all this fear is connected to a desire to create magic for our kids all the time. To prepare elaborate crafts they won’t remember or to craft stories about elves that report back to Santa.
If we can keep the kids at home and entertained, they’ll be safe. We’ll be making memories for them, just like we should be.
If I think back to my own childhood, exactly two crafts come to mind. One was a marble covered in paint that we rolled around in a box with paper laid across the bottom in my preschool class. It must have been around Halloween, because they were black and orange. I still have it in a box at my parents’ house.
The other is a book my mom gave me, along with a glue stick and some scissors. It was filled entirely with drawings of DIY jewelry that I could cut out, glue together, and wear. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and doing this as my mom vacuumed or cooked. It was the thrill of doing it myself, of making my own beautiful things that struck me.
If we really want to create magic for them, I think we have to step out of the picture, as hard as that is. Give them freedom to create, to imagine, to explore without us. We have to limit the activities where they’re controlled — whether it’s screens or organized sports or summer camps.
We have to let our young kids push us out of our comfort zones, and we need to push the older ones out of theirs.
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The other day, my ten-year-old asked me if he could go on a bike ride by himself. We live in a quiet neighborhood without too much traffic. He’s a responsible kid. He has a helmet. So, I said yes. Go down the street, take a left at the bottom of the hill, then turn left again at the stop sign. Be home in 10 minutes.
Thirty minutes later, he rolled to a stop in our driveway with a glint of excitement in his eye. He wasn’t sure where he’d been, but he turned around when he saw “the big road” and retraced his route.
I pulled my phone out of his fanny pack (because yes, I’d succumbed to a slight amount of fear about this first expedition out) and checked the GPS: He’d missed the turn at the bottom of the hill. In fact, he’d driven all the way to the back of our neighborhood and back out the other entrance. It was a good 2.5 mile ride, all told.
But he’d figured it out himself. He’d done the right thing when he got to the main road. He found his way home. After a glass of water and a bit of rest, he begged to go back out for another ride . . . three more times that afternoon.
He’d tasted the magic.
And because I stepped out of the way, I got to taste it too.
Note: I’d be wrong not to mention that this entire experience is laden with white privilege. If my son had a different skin color, I’m not sure his experience would have gone this well even in my own neighborhood. Perhaps especially in my own neighborhood. I’m hoping that we’re at a tipping point, and soon any mother will rightly feel comfortable letting her child do the same that I did. We’re committed, here, to correcting that oppression wherever we see it so that can be the case.