Fighting the Overprotective Impulse

by Donne Davis on November 7, 2011

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Today’s guest post is by Peggy Orenstein, award-winning writer, editor and speaker about issues affecting girls and women. Her newest book is Cinderella Ate My Daughter.

I don’t mean to rub it in for those of you in the Northeast (O.K., maybe a little), but Sunday was gorgeous in Berkeley, Calif.: balmy, blue sky and, touch wood, steady ground. My husband and daughter and I took advantage by indulging in a stack of pancakes at an outdoor cafe. She got itchy as Steven and I lingered over coffee and the Sunday paper (why is it that kids wolf their food down when you want to lounge and are impossibly pokey when you don’t?) and she asked me if she could go to the bookstore. The store was down the block, around the corner and across one high-traffic street that had a crosswalk but no stop sign or light. I glanced at Steven, hoping for a clue about how to respond.

I know all about the “free-range kid” argument: a few years back, Lenore Skenazy wrote a column for The New York Sun about letting her 9-year-old ride the subway alone. In the wake of the support and outrage that followed, she founded a movement complete with a book (Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry), and, apparently, an upcoming TV show, all geared toward loosening your child’s leash.

Still, there is theory and then there is practice. I agree with the free-range premise, but the truth is, I’m innately overprotective. That’s why I look to my husband, who tends to be more objective, to make this sort of call. Of course, that also lets me off the hook: it’s his fault if things go wrong.

I want to let my daughter roam the way I did as a child. I really do. But when she asks for new freedoms like this one, I balk. All I can hear is the thud of metal against flesh; all I can think about is how I would feel at that moment about saying yes.

Yet, isn’t part of parenthood recognizing that it’s not actually about me?

I learned that lesson early, during my daughter’s first Halloween. She spent the holiday in the pediatric I.C.U. at Oakland Children’s Hospital, multiple IVs extending from each arm and leg, a breathing tube shoved down her throat. She was 3 months old. At some point, probably when she’d had a life-threatening seizure, her medical team had sliced off the little jack o’ lantern jammies we had bought her. The tiny pumpkin hat with which I’d planned to top the ensemble was shoved to the bottom of my purse. We never did know for sure why it happened, but in a couple of weeks she had gone from being a perfectly healthy infant to, well, this.

Even now, eight years later, it’s hard for me to write about that time, painful to reduce it to an anecdote. But those dark days were also a crucible: they taught me that the essence of parenthood (along with joy and exhaustion and finding yourself saying heretofore unthinkable things like, “Because I said so”) is vulnerability: my heart was lying in that hospital crib. If it stopped beating, I knew I would not survive.

When she miraculously (and somewhat inexplicably) recovered, I swore I would not let my baby’s illness define her childhood. I didn’t want that brush with her mortality to scare me into trying to shield her (and, by extension, myself) from pain. So while my instinct is often to say “no!” — no, you can’t go to the bookstore alone; no, you can’t ride your bike to the park by yourself; no, you can’t walk to your friend’s house along streets with no sidewalks — I force myself to take a breath and say yes instead, to put her burgeoning independence ahead of my fears.

That’s why I decided it was time for me to woman up and make the bookstore call myself. “Sure, honey,” I told her, my voice light. “Go ahead.”

I watched her head off proudly down the street, as I have watched her ride off on her bike, as I will watch her some day drive off in a car and as I will watch her go off into the world (too soon). Then I turned toward my husband, felt the warm sun on my face and focused on slowing down my own heart, which was beating too quickly,  and learning to trust.

So what about you? Are you an overprotective parent? How do you make those small decisions about where child (or teenager) goes alone? When do you say yes? When do you say no?

{ 1 comment }

Nannette Gilbert November 7, 2011 at 10:04 pm

My natural instinct has always been to give children a bit more freedom than what seems to be popular right now. I probably wouldn’t let my child ride the subway alone, heck I’m not sure I would want to ride the subway alone. I have let them walk around the mall alone, or walk down to the corner gas station for a soda.

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