WHEN SHOULD MUM AND DAD LET GO?

It may be scary, but giv­ing your childern some free­dom is good for them – and you

The Mail on Sunday - You - - In This Issue - IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS Miguel Gal­lardo

Iwent to Hawaii this spring with three fam­i­lies, to a ho­tel on a shal­low turquoise beach. The ho­tel curved along the shore, far from the road, and had a kids’ club. The chil­dren could run around in a pack. There was nowhere to get lost or kid­napped. Even drown­ing looked like a chal­lenge in the clear, knee-high wa­ter. It struck me that hol­i­day plans for chil­dren – at the beach, at sum­mer camps – are de­signed to give par­ents a re­prieve from their lives as air-traf­fic con­trollers and shut­tle driv­ers, and also to give their off­spring some in­de­pen­dence. ‘Don’t do any­thing dan­ger­ous,’ I heard a man at the ho­tel say to a child hang­ing up­side down on a handrail along the vast lawn. ‘I don’t want you to crack your head. Do you think you can sur­vive alone out here?’

All week, I kept think­ing about that ques­tion asked on the pro­tected lawn at the child-friendly ho­tel: ‘Do you think you can sur­vive alone out here?’ Chil­dren, of course, sur­vive hor­ror, war

Let­ting the in­vis­i­ble tether stretch is one of the hardest things par­ents have to do

and de­pri­va­tion ev­ery day. Many ac­quire more self-re­liance than any­one needs. Some make their own spears to catch fish in the Ama­zon. But that doesn’t make the fears of a child crack­ing her head open while swing­ing on a handrail any less real.

Full dis­clo­sure: I don’t have chil­dren. I’m happy as an aunt and god­par­ent. I have a four-year-old nephew I adore, who can and will climb any­thing and thinks he’s a su­per­hero. I know he has a good sense of what heights he can scale and that the oc­ca­sional fall is im­por­tant for defin­ing those bound­aries – but it’s a lit­tle ter­ri­fy­ing. I can han­dle the adrenalin, ver­tigo and con­stant risk anal­y­sis for a few days but could I han­dle it full-time for 18 years? I’m not sure. ‘They’re con­stantly flirt­ing with dan­ger,’ the mother of a five-year- old told me. ‘I’m telling you – ev­ery minute.’

An­other friend, an older mother, told me she can’t stop read­ing sto­ries of ter­ri­ble things hap­pen­ing to chil­dren: fires, kid­nap­pings, the two-year-old snatched by an al­li­ga­tor at the Dis­ney re­sort in Or­lando last year. She’ll click on ev­ery aw­ful story on the in­ter­net. It’s as if by know­ing all the tragic pos­si­bil­i­ties she can pre­vent them.

Oth­ers can’t even look at those sto­ries. Ev­ery­one pro­cesses fear dif­fer­ently, and has to sep­a­rate the anx­i­eties and trau­mas of their own child­hood from ac­tual dan­gers, to be able to func­tion.

I was a life­guard for years so I’m a scan­ner by habit, al­ways count­ing heads. I had just waded into the Hawai­ian surf one morn­ing with a mask and snorkel when one of the dads shouted his son’s name. Then he shouted mine. He was point­ing to the wa­ter be­yond me. Sure that a child was in trou­ble, I got ready to plunge to the res­cue. But the dad was point­ing at a round, dark shadow. I put my face in the wa­ter and saw a sea tur­tle, stubby legs wav­ing up and down as it cruised by, un­hur­ried. It eyed me and I swam along­side, fear re­placed by won­der. I thought how good it would be if we could all man­age more won­der about the world and less fear.

I grew up in a small city on the edge of the Rocky Moun­tains in the 1980s with trails lead­ing from our back door and a big ex­tended fam­ily. I could walk or cy­cle to school, to my friends’ houses and to the mar­ket that sold sweets and comics. In the sum­mer we spent af­ter­noons at the pool un­til our fin­ger­tips pruned. We knew the life­guards; they knew our par­ents. We had some scary mo­ments – a fight on the walk to school, a creepy guy hang­ing around the pub­lic li­brary – and we prob­a­bly could have used some more mon­i­tor­ing, but we had no sense that we needed it.

I got a learn­ers’ per­mit to drive at 14 and a li­cence at 15 – younger than most places in the US al­low. Kids from my school died in car ac­ci­dents and we all did stupid things; I’m lucky to have made it through un­scathed. Seat­belt-wear­ing was hap­haz­ard then; to­day’s car seats for chil­dren are much safer. Par­ents have be­come more vig­i­lant. You can even track your kid on your phone.

But some changes feel like a loss. Our rel­a­tively in­de­pen­dent child­hoods made us re­source­ful and gave us skills. Be­ing able to wan­der on your own, to solve prob­lems and

Be­ing able to wan­der on your own and solve prob­lems cre­ates a sense of self-re­liance

es­cape dan­gers cre­ates a sense of self-re­liance that’s hard to du­pli­cate, even on a beach hol­i­day or at sum­mer camp. For par­ents, the habit of vig­i­lance is hard to turn off. They try to re­lax and en­joy them­selves but the fear re­mains that calamity will strike, so they spend the hol­i­day sort of re­laxed and sort of stressed out.

At the beach ho­tel, we were sit­ting at lunch when a 13-year- old called his mother to say that they’d lost the lit­tlest boy in their group – some­one else’s child – at the ten­nis court. She told him and his sis­ter to check the beach be­cause that was the most dan­ger­ous place. Then she called the boy’s mother and ran to check the ten­nis court, pan­ick­ing and blam­ing her­self. The boy turned up in his ho­tel room and ev­ery­one started to breathe again.

At sun­set, the chil­dren were play­ing in the tiny waves on boo­gie boards, be­com­ing more con­fi­dent in their swim­ming. The par­ents were stand­ing on the sand, drink­ing piña co­ladas in straw hats and cover-ups. When the sun neared the hori­zon, huge and or­ange over the wa­ter, the chil­dren be­came im­pos­si­ble to see, cast into blind­ing sil­hou­ette. So the par­ents threw off their dry clothes and waded in to keep a closer eye on them.

At din­ner, the chil­dren ate at their own ta­ble across the restau­rant, giddy with free­dom. At the adults’ ta­ble, we talked about a new study show­ing that em­pa­thetic par­ents have chronic low-grade in­flam­ma­tion from be­ing flooded with the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol when they feel their chil­dren’s pain. Ev­ery­one in the fam­ily is psy­cho­log­i­cally health­ier but the par­ents are more sus­cep­ti­ble to dis­ease. The moth­ers moaned, ‘Oh, great,’ and reached for their drinks.

I be­lieve in let­ting chil­dren have some lee­way, push­ing through the fear, let­ting them find their own re­source­ful­ness so they can deal with life’s chal­lenges. But I also un­der­stand how hard it is to do that and how your child’s in­evitable dis­tress can set­tle into your body’s cells and wreak havoc.

When I got home, a friend emailed me about his son, who’s 11 and in a school play in New York. He said, ‘I fol­low him on my iPhone as I watch him leave rehearsal in the dark to go to the sub­way alone. And I can see that he is tak­ing a route I have told him not to take – but I’m prob­a­bly not going to give him any crap about it be­cause he’s old enough to break some rules.’

He wants his son to make his own choices and trust his ca­pa­bil­ity. Let­ting that in­vis­i­ble tether stretch, know­ing when to step in and when not to, is one of the hardest things par­ents have to do.

And when dis­as­ter strikes it’s hard to main­tain our em­pa­thy for other par­ents and not to judge them in­stinc­tively. When the al­li­ga­tor took the two-year-old from the la­goon at the Dis­ney re­sort in Florida, his fa­ther was a few feet away and peo­ple held the par­ents re­spon­si­ble. But it hap­pened so fast; oth­ers said ev­ery­one let their chil­dren play in the same way. The idea that you could lose a child so quickly and not be able to pre­vent it, is unimag­in­able. So our first thought is that we could have kept it from hap­pen­ing, when in truth, dis­as­ters are im­pos­si­ble to an­tic­i­pate.

The lottery of birth puts some chil­dren in dan­ger, no mat­ter what their par­ents do. The place they’re born, the colour of their skin or the way their pan­creas func­tions can stack the deck against them from the start – and yet so of­ten they thrive. Chil­dren are more re­silient than we think. If they’re en­cour­aged to take risks and make mis­takes – mis­takes that can be lived with – they learn how to sur­vive when no par­ent is there to pro­tect them, whether on the lawn or out in the world.

‘It’s all joy and ter­ror,’ a new mother told me. ‘But that’s the risk with any love, isn’t it?’

Maile’s new novel Do Not Be­come Alarmed is pub­lished by Pen­guin, price £8.99. To or­der a copy for £6.74 (a 25 per cent dis­count) un­til 27 Au­gust, go to you-book­shop.co.uk, or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on or­ders over £15

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