Monday, February 7, 2011

Free the Grape!

The Grape is all about taking Lila the Dog for walks. He follows her around the living room and festoons the leash over her shoulders, snout, tail or whatever doggie body part he happens to get ahold of. He also believes that since he must suffer the indignity of wearing mittens, then Lila should have to wear her booties whenever she ventures beyond our patio.

Instead of hiding under the dining room table like she does when I say it's time to get dressed, Lila gamely offers her paws for the Grape. I think she's realized he can't actually secure the velcro closures. But the Grape's latest thing is that he wants to take Lila out for a walk by himself.

He herds her towards the door with the leash, tries to apply his own boots and jacket, and shoos Mamma away from the exit. I may not be a parenting genius, but cute as this whole dance is, I recognize that it's a bad idea to let an eighteen-month-old exercise the dog. Or vice versa.

R. and I do speculate about how long it will be until the Grape can run Lila up to the dog park on his own. I imagine it will be several years until both of them learn to look both ways before crossing the street. Judging by the kids I see at the dog park unaccompanied by parents, the age seems to be around second or third grade.

But if the hysteria featured in Britain in this weekend's Express catches on Stateside, then it will be even longer before the boy and his dog can venture out without Mamma.

As Lenore Skenazy recounted in her excellent blog (a link to Free Range Kids is on the right hand side of this page), a woman in the UK was cited by police for leaving her fourteen-year-old home to supervise his three-year-old sibling while she popped over to the grocery shop.

She was absent a half hour, and although no incident occurred, the authorities gave her a warning for "cruelty." Preposterous and laughable, right? Not so much. Under local law, the woman now has a criminal record that disqualifies her from her job as a nursing aide. Incredulous, I had to surf over to the original news article to make sure Lenore got the facts right. Sadly she made no mistake.

This kind of over protection of adolescents makes me crazy.

When I was fourteen, many, many of my contemporaries had already been working paid baby sitting gigs for years. I had my first paid late night baby sitting engagement when I was twelve. And (the horror!) those parents, who left in charge of a four-year-old and a one-year-old, didn't even have a cell phone. It wasn't their fault entirely. The gadget hadn't been invented.

I suppose, looking back, that the reasonable thing for this couple to do would have been to wait until the advent of the Blackberry in order to leave their children in the hands of a CPR certified adult. Preferably one with a Ph.D. in child development.

Not trust that a kid from down the street would have the cerebral capacity to summon both 9-1-1 and her own mom in the event of a true emergency.

I never really enjoyed baby sitting. I wasn't a fan of other people's kids and greatly preferred to spend my time (and pick up a couple of extra dollars now and then) by doing manual labor around other people's horses. Yes, that was an inherently dangerous activity. No, my parents didn't agonize over whether to let me handle thousand-pound animals or expose myself to all manner of germs and worms. They figured barn work was, like baby sitting, a good way to learn a little responsibility. They were right.

Once a week, I rode five miles from one barn to another by myself, through the woods and across a busy road, to take a lesson. In the winter, it was dark on the way home. I was fourteen when I started doing this. Nobody thought much of it. These days my mom would probably get hauled off to jail for allowing this weekly adventure.

Maybe I was a weird kid, but I savored those solitary jaunts through the woods. It makes me sad to think the Grape will likely never enjoy a comparable opportunity.

When my sister was about a year and a half old, my mother routinely left her with me (age 11) or my brother (age 8) so that she could run quick errands unencumbered by the baby. We all survived. I remember it was kind of fun to be left in charge for short spells.

And I was in the first grade when I realized that a good third of my class mates were what we used to call "latch key kids," meaning they went home to empty houses after school. Would parents who permit this practice today risk ending up as featured freaks on the evening news?

I don't buy that the world is so much more dangerous now that it was then. Yes, there are more cars speeding down country roads. And perhaps there are more twisted deviants out there; although I would wager not.

The majority of basic household hazards remain the same today as they were thirty years ago. Yet we're more able than ever to summon help by a broad spectrum of communication devices.

If kids never get to be responsible for anything, or never have to make snap decisions, why are we surprised when our high schoolers perform abysmally on critical thinking tests? News flash: critical thinking is one of those things, just like riding a bike, that you cannot learn from a textbook. You need to practice, and experience the inherent setbacks, in order to learn.

Even more troubling: If we don't allow fourteen-year-olds to stay home alone, or to take on any modicum of responsibility for themselves or anyone else, does it make sense that we routinely issue them cars two short years later? Anyone want to run the numbers on how many teens die in automobile wrecks versus how many adolescents perish while home alone or home with a sibling?

The Grape won't be walking the dog unaccompanied any time soon. But the day will come that I let him run across the street to the park or leave him in front of the TV to go buy a carton of milk. I can't say for certain when that day will come, but I promise it's not twelve years away.
Because I believe that if I want to free his mind, to let him grow into a thinking, deliberative little person, it can't be done without allowing a taste of physical freedom first.

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