The Paralyzing Fear and Unparalleled Relief of Letting Kids Grow
Recently, my son went bike riding with a friend.
He was masked; he was outdoors, it was just the two of them—months into this pandemic, my husband and I are learning to extend the concept of “calculated risk” to our children. So yes, go ride your bike. Be a normal 13-year-old boy doing the most basic of summertime activities.
As I heard the garage door close, I realized I had taken for granted the pleasure of teenagers just staying put. There comes this time in raising children—for me it was around middle school—where the separation anxiety switches from being theirs to being yours. My kids went from being driven to and from school to getting on buses and subway trains. On my son’s first day of sixth grade, I stood at the corner anxiously awaiting the New York City Q22 bus that stopped on my corner. I was filled with pride as I saw the bus approach, and then overwhelmed with horror as I watched it breeze past our stop. What happened? Why didn’t it stop? When would he finally get off, and where?
My head felt dizzy and my stomach churned. I called him, but no answer. Why didn’t he get off? When would he get off? Would he know how to get back? Finally, 10 blocks past our stop, I saw his little dot start moving towards me on the Find My Friends app. He picked up the phone. I tried to sound as normal as possible. “Everything okay?” Yes, he said. “Mom, you won’t believe what happened.” The kids on the bus—rambunctious, out-of-control, and glad to be done with the first day of school--were pushing the buzzer for every stop, and the driver decided to start ignoring them. Then a fight broke out in the back of the jam-packed bus, and my little 11-year-old had to elbow his wait to the front to get the driver to stop.
I stood at the corner, waiting for a glimpse of him. And then there he was, those long, skinny brown legs, his back slightly hunched from the weight of the first-day-of-school backpack. There is no greater sense of relief than knowing for sure that your child is safe. I wanted to hug him tightly, but settled on a high five, as that is all I’m allowed in public now.
I’ve experienced that shift from terrified to thanking-God-on-my-knees relief more times than I can count. There was the time my daughter convinced me to let her go to a party in Brooklyn that turned out to be an after-hours rave. And that horrifying night when she went to an overnight debate tournament and her phone died and the chaperone had no idea where she was at 11 pm. "We got an Uber and went to pick up food, Mom. It was no big deal." Tell that to my churning stomach.
And then after months spent not leaving the house, my son goes for a bike ride.
His routine is to go to the playground and then maybe play soccer or baseball. This time he texts us to say, “We’re heading out to Fort Tilden.” That’s about a 5-mile bike ride that brings you off the boardwalk and through the streets of Belle Harbor, past Riis Park, under the Marine Parkway Bridge, until you’re finally at the ballfields and soccer fields. I didn’t want him to go but we’ve done the ride together as a family and his 16-year-old sister has done it with her friends. He’s been cooped up in the house for months, is 13, yearns for independence, and wanted some adventure too I’m sure. Yet, I desperately wanted to say no and tell him to come home. His father intervened, approved, and asked him to text us when he got there.
I reminded myself to breathe. I said a prayer while I waited for that text.
The text came with photographs from an area in Fort Tilden I had never been to before, way past the ballfields. It was overgrown, a mix of graffitied artscapes and unparalleled ocean views, admittedly beautiful but also terrifyingly empty. Two young boys, out on their bikes, in a desolate corner of an abandoned Army installation. It sounded like something out of Stranger Things or Stand By Me – kids take risks, they have adventures, and usually it works out fine but what about those times it does not?
Cue the panic.
Parenthood asks us to become Oscar-caliber performers. I try so hard not to put my anxiety on my kids. If they’re fine, I’m fine, or so I pretend. But at the same time, we need to teach them street smarts and expose them, in the gentlest way possible, to the lurking horrors of this world. I think of what could have happened to these boys in their newly discovered wilderness, and I shudder. I text my son that it’s time to head home for dinner. He obliges, and before I know it he is proudly showing me photos of “his favorite place in Rockaway.”
We will have a talk with him about why this trip was risky. We will explain why he needs to stay in populated areas. He will get frustrated and tell us we’re overreacting. I know because I’ve already had these conversations with my daughter, and regret the ways in which I’ve had to steal her joy in an attempt, the constant attempt, to keep her safe.
From the moment that child is placed into your arms, there is an unspoken pact: you will trust me, and I will keep you safe. In the beginning it’s simple enough: nurse them through croup, put covers on all the outlets, stand by them as they climb the monkey bars. But then they go out of your grasp, out of your view, and it’s now you who has to trust them, and trust God or the universe, that the odds are in your favor and everything will be okay. They will have experiences, they will make mistakes, they will make you panic and make you proud, sometimes simultaneously.
Letting my son take risks is also about letting myself take a risk, and gambling that everything I have taught these kids will add up to them being okay.
I gamble, I pray, I hope, I believe. What else is there?