Thursday, July 14, 2011

Free Range Tragedy

In 2008, journalist Lenore Skenazy created a major controversy when she let her son Izzie find his way home from Bloomingdale's with a subway map, and cash, but no phone. Called "America's worst mom," she became an advocate of "free range kids" in her blog and book of that name. I read Skenazy's book for an academic project I am doing on the idea of neglect -- what I am calling a fantasy of neglect -- in literature and film about and for children. Reading it, I have become aware of my own helicopter parent tendencies -- my inability to give my kids the freedoms I had when I was their age. Like most people my age, I remember leaving my house on a summer morning and telling my mother I'd be home at dinner. In between, I might go to organized activities at the park (gimp, plaster of Paris, kickball), hang out in the woods, wander the neighborhood, go to a friend's house, or walk to the store. I never had a problem beyond the usual kid stuff of being hassled by other kids, yelled at by neighbors . My kids, by contrast, have never walked down the street by themselves. They still don't ride bikes alone and, when they bike with us, we use tandems because biking across highways and in city traffic is too risky for little bicyclists. Reading "Free Range Kids," I have wanted and tried to give my kids little freedoms -- on our recent trip, we let the kids wander the cruise ship alone, and get lost, using in-ship phones to contact us when they got worried. I stopped walking them into school and try to give them more responsibility in the house.

Today, when I read about the murder of Leiby Kltezky (see link above), my heart sank. Here were parents doing exactly what I wanted to do -- letting their kid have some small independence by walking part of the way home from day camp. They showed him the route, rehearsed it with him, and still he got confused. Stopping to ask for help, one would hope that most of the time the person asked would not turn out to be a psycho, but in this case, he chose the wrong person, or was chosen by him. I shudder to think of whatever happened between their initial contact and the discovery of his dismembered body two days later. I feel terrible for the parents. They were not irresponsible but trying to let the boy grow, and feel some freedom. Now, though, they will carry the terrible weight of their decision and now those of us who might want to give our kids freedom, which is also a way of giving ourselves freedom, will feel unable and will hover more closely than ever.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Sister Wives

Some time ago, I mentioned my fantasy about having a sister wife, like on Big Love. I just got back from a family vacation and got as near to the sister-wife method as I am likely and, I have to say, it works. My father-in-law took us and his two daughters' families on a Disney Cruise, then the parents and kids -- sans grandparents -- went to Disney World. The grandparents were not in a position to help. My father-in-law has been having some health issues and needed a fair bit of care from his wife, children and in-laws. But that still left 6 adults to take care of 7 kids. Much of the time we all hung out -- so all parents were pretty much consumed by childcare -- helping kids order meals, finding potties, making sure they didn't go crazy when the service at the restaurant was so slow, or after they'd eaten (for reasons I can't fathom, Disney would usually have the kids eat their meals before ours arrived, so they would not be hungry but they were very bored). At times we could drop the kids at the kid center (Camp something or other, filled with workers from Great Britain -- nobody working on the cruise was American -- maybe because they worked 84 hours a week for no overtime!). And one glorious afternoon, we let the kids roam the boat by themselves, a rare taste of independence for city kids who never get to walk down their own block by themselves. Mostly, though, it was shared sister-wife style parenting with brother-in-law-wives as well. I was more than happy to take the three 8-year olds for a walk around the boat and to the arcade so my sisters-and brothers-in-law could have an hour of grown up time. And I was very happy when my brother-in-law played with my kids in the pool and let me read for a while. I was happy to take their kids on teacups while they took mine on Space Mountain. Trading off meant that nobody felt the burden too much. We all got to know our nieces and nephews better and felt like we had an actual vacation.

Sadly, both my siblings and my husbands are scattered all over -- San Francisco, LA, Massachusetts, and Arlington, VA, with us in Chicago. We do not have the family support system that some people still have. Our only local family -- the generous grandparents above -- spend most of the year in Florida and then come here for three months in summer. They have babysat once in ten years. They warmed to it just as my father-in-law fell ill, so who knows if that will ever happen again.

My sister has some of this. A single mom by choice, she moved to the town where my parents live when her daughter was born. My mother became the nanny for the first two years and she and my dad still drive their granddaughter to play rehearsals, attend school events, take her to church, and have the odd family dinner together. When they drive my sister crazy, I try to remind her how lucky she is. And how she and my niece have probably done more to keep them going in the last ten years than anything else.

Sadly, my fantasy that it would be this shared "takes a village" sister-wife community all the time if only we all lived nearby is probably false. My sister-in-laws live only a few miles from each other but said they never see each other. One is a stay at home mom with three kids, the other runs a dog-walking and boarding company. Somehow, they can't grab a coffee, visit each other, or swap childcare duties. Unlike my mother, who is retired and whose children are grown, they are too busy to find ways to make themselves less busy. They can't extract themselves from what they are doing to find a way to share the burden.

So, how can we do it? How do we access the village that it takes to raise our children? And where on Craig's list is the section for sister-wives?