Adventures in free-range parenting: My third-grader walks home alone for the first time

8923046d353a0ce5441683170bedc2bbMy father has often told me the following story: It was my first day of school in the first grade. I was a scrawny little six-year-old, in a flowered pinafore and braids setting off for the half-mile walk to Canterbury Elementary School in our suburban Cleveland hometown.

She (Oh God, do I hate pronouns; my dad is transgender; it’s a long, unrelated story; there’s a book and a one-woman show, if you care to know more; and now I will resume my previous sentence…) could hardly bear to watch me go. “I pressed my forehead to the glass angling my face to see as far as I could, until you were finally out of sight,” she has said, more times than she probably realizes. “I couldn’t stand just watching you walking all by yourself.”

God, do I know that feeling.

I’ve had that shudder of horror just thinking about my eight-year-old son head off to school. But here’s the caveat: I’d never actually done it. Like most of the other parents in my town, my husband and I ferry our kids everywhere—to school, to activities, to playdates. Our eldest is in middle school and walks there solo, although I nearly vomited the first day I let her go off by herself. And she was 11. 

In all honesty, I don’t know what I’m afraid of. I’m a longtime fan of Lenore Skenazy and her free-range parenting site. I mock helicopter parents (I know, I know). I realize the statistics on kidnapping are negligible. I know my son is capable of looking both ways before he crosses the street, even though he lacks a lot of other basic skills like being able to carry more than one thing in his hands without doing a vaudevillian-style pratfall, or to tie his shoes (damn you, Velcro).

So a couple days ago, I told my son, D, to walk home from school by himself later that day. (Alone in a matter of speaking, that is, considering the presence of the crossing guards, and the sidewalks choked with other parents and kids.) I hoped D would be excited to attempt such a big-boy endeavor. Mmm…not so much.

D: Nooooooo. That’s scary!
Me: Walking home from school isn’t scary. You do it every day.
D: It’s scary without mommy or daddy to protect me!
Me: Protect you from what?
D: What if I start daydreaming and wander out in front of cars?
Me: OK, well, don’t do that.
D: But what if teenagers are on the street saying bad words?
Me: If you can survive being in the same room while we watch John Oliver, you’ll make it through this.
D: What if I step in dog poop because no one points it out to me?
Me: We own a hose.
D (increasingly agitated): What if…
Me: Look, I’ll give you a piece of cake if you do this.
D (pleased): Cake?! OK.

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My son, imagining a long walk filled with swearing teens and dog poop.

While D was at school that day, I prepared to worry. Now, anticipation of worry is not the same thing as actually worrying. But I was certain, as soon as the hour of school dismissal approached, that I would become a blithering idiot. I even considered live-blogging my waiting as D walked home, certain as I was that each minute would be nerve-wrackingly, nail-bitingly fraught with tension and angst. 

AND…

Ehh. It was fine. I drank some iced coffee and read a book and then there he was. No drama. No excitement. Turns out, once again, that the lead-up to facing a fear is always worse than the moment itself.

“So are you proud of yourself?” I asked D, as he dug into his after-school snack. “Don’t you feel better now that you can do this?”

“Not really,” he said. “But this is awesome cake.”