Monday, April 23, 2012

Roots and Wings: Giving children the freedom to roam

When I lived in suburban Maryland, concerned neighbors warned me I shouldn't let my kids go to the neighborhood park alone. It could be unsafe. Other kids were not allowed to ride their bikes out of our cul-de-sac. All sorts of trouble might lurk around the swings and basketball courts in the park up the hill, out of sight from our street. "Unsavory characters" may prey on unattended children. I appreciated their worries, but sent my kids off anyway.

How could I?! As good parents, it is our responsibility to protect our children from potential harm. I understand this. But there are many kinds of harm we need to protect our children from. And one of them is the psychological damage we can inflict when we over-protect them. When we warn them not to wander too far, because the world is a big, unsafe place, we teach them fear. Fear can be crippling and dangerous, too. We must weigh the risks of both kinds of danger: physical and emotional harm.

I grew up in suburban New York. As children, my brothers and I wandered as far as our bikes would take us. We played in the woods behind our house for hours. We walked 2 miles to the town deli to buy candy with our spare change. We followed a few basic rules: Stay in pairs (at least). Keep a quarter in your pocket for a pay phone. Don't talk to strangers. Be home before dark. Otherwise, we were free to roam, exploring our world with confidence. I treasure the sense of freedom and adventure this imparted on me and believe it is part of what gave me the courage to travel abroad as a high school student.

And this is what I feel is important to give my children: carefree confidence. Not to be confused with carelessness. My kids follow the same rules I was taught, with the added bonus that they can carry a cell phone along. They've been taught to be aware of their surroundings: be safe, but do not be afraid! They need to check in more frequently than I ever did as a kid. But otherwise, they are encouraged to get outside, discover their world, and have fun!

So this is one thing I really love about our new life in Germany. The attitude of allowing kids to explore untethered is much more prevalent. Whereas my children were often the only ones in our American neighborhood who could go to the park without an adult, here my nine-year old gathers his friends from around the block and takes off to climb trees or build forts in the woods.

There's a saying (often attributed to Goethe, but not sure this is accurate): "Give your children roots and wings." Teach them responsibility, give them a firm foundation, a loving and safe home, and them set them free to fly. These lessons need to start when they are young in small steps. One day the neighborhood park; later, a cross-country trip to relatives; eventually, maybe, backpacking across several continents. Children  should be empowered to take on the world, exploring, learning, growing.

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