Going Hands-Off: The Scary Challenge of Giving a Kid Freedom

"Can I go ride my bike?" My 5-year-old is tired of watching me tapping away at a laptop, and I can't blame him. I often think about how different it will be to work from home next year when Dylan's in kindergarten, but for now we have to balance my writing deadlines and his boredom as best we can, and that usually involves him spending up to an hour at a time on his bike.

He dutifully pulls on his helmet, straddles his bright yellow bike, struggles to shut the garage door -- then he pushes into the pedals and he's off. Down the driveway and into the street, quickly moving out of my view from the front living room.

Not for the first time, I imagine it: a careening screech of brakes followed by a sickening impact. The moment when everything in our lives irrevocably changes ... and it's all my fault.


Oh, I know: Melodramatic much? But I suspect it's the curse of every parent, to have the unwanted ability to conjure up the absolute worst case scenarios at the drop of a hat. I think of it as the All Roads Lead to Meningitis Syndrome, where slight fevers are always portents of doom and cars lurk around every corner waiting to mow down your child.

What's that saying -- "When you hear hoofbeats behind you, don't expect to see a zebra"? I always think it's a zebra. And according to WebMD, the zebra has an incredibly rare form of incurable cancer.

What I'm saying is that it's not easy for me to let Dylan go out and ride his bike by himself. While our street is pretty quiet, there is some traffic, mostly landscape trucks that come rattling through to service our neighbors' lawns. Dylan knows to stay on one side of the street, not to ride past certain points, and he pulls over and waits while cars go by -- but he's only 5. He's not necessarily the model of good decision-making skills or laser-like focus, you know? I can see -- all too vividly -- how something could go wrong. A too-fast, inattentive driver; a distracted child.

In order to keep an eye on him, I could sit out in the front lawn ... but I don't. I usually pull a chair close to the living room window so I can at least see him when he loops back through our driveway, likely as not singing one of tuneless little-boy songs, but for the most part, he's out of my view. I sometimes think how his solo bike rides are a metaphor for parenting: We taught him how to ride, we taught him to wear a helmet, we taught him street safety as best we could -- and then we let him out into the big scary world that's full of fucked-up, terrible things. We allow him to disappear from our sight, despite the urge to hover and protect.

The worst thing of it is, I know if (godforbid) something bad were to happen, I would never forgive myself. I would think of it over and over and over for the rest of my life, re-enacting the moment when he asked if he could ride his bike but this time I say no, not by yourself buddy. Or I say okay but I have to be out there with you. Or I ask if he wants to do a puzzle or draw with crayons instead.

But that's no way to live, right? Refusing to let your kid do perfectly normal kid activities because your brain is a paranoid Whack-a-Mole game of unlikely outcomes?

Parenthood is this bizarre journey of pouring everything you've got into keeping your child safe and cared for ... then learning to let go. You bolster them up as best you can, then you reluctantly step back in order to chew your nails and hope for the best.

I see Dylan's yellow bike carrying him farther and farther, faster and faster. He whoops with pure childhood joy and waves to me, and I stifle a million smothering urges and wave back, until I can't see him anymore.

What sorts of things do you let your kids do that freak you out?

Image via Linda Sharps

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