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

Mom Moment 27

"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

boys, safety


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MaryC... MaryCimino

Due to the nature of my neighborhood I don't allow my kid to ride her bike around. If I lived in a safer area it would be a different story.

nonmember avatar Lori

My big kids are 7 and 6. When they hit 5 is when I, too, started letting them go places without me - public restrooms, riding bikes around the block, sitting on a bench at the playground. It's also when I stopped hovering at play dates, made them learn to make their own breakfasts and became strict about doing chores. It's so hard, especially the bike one, but if we don't give them some kind of independence, they'll be living in the basement until their 40, so we just have to do it.

douxm... douxmusique

It really is a tough place to be in. I try to let my kids go be free as much as I can but it scares me to death. we just moved to a great neighborhiod where it looks as if letting kids out of your control to play and roam the neighborhood is normal and common practice so I'm hoping to exercise a little bit if letting go. I'm excited to let them go ride their bikes freely. But it still scares me.

nonmember avatar Sidney

Wait until they start driving. I'm there with my oldest now and I'm a nervous wreck.

mommy... mommytojack0524

It scares me already and he's not even 2 yet!  It starts so early--I pick him up and carry him through parking lots. Other parents let their kids walk.  I don't let my son in the back yard (or even another room) without some supervision. I have family members with similar aged kids who do. When is it safe to let him walk, play outside, etc.? I have no idea. I'm just taking it day by day.

Truel... Truelove77

I live in a good neighborhood but stuff happens every where I don't let them go to the store by themselves mommy is always around except for in school.You can't trust now adays....I don't let them do anything Im not comfortable with there still young.

insei... inseineangel

I'll be perfectly fine not letting my daughter out of my sight until she's in her teens. In the area I live, while it's not really "bad", I know how easy it is for a wreckless/careless/teen driver to come along and hit a child/person. Or how easy it is for a random stranger to take them. You can teach them all about stranger danger and the like, but they're children that lack the strength to fight back if someone really wants to grab them up and drive off. Not to mention I see all the children running around with no supervision, and if they're not raising hell, they're putting themselves in danger without knowing it half the time.

Yes, I may be a paranoid mom. I know some people are going to judge and tell me it's not healthy for my child. But, at least I'll know where my child is and that she is safe.

Emily Langone Campbell

I wish I was that brave. I certainly was when I was 6 and wanted to ride MY bike by myself, but no, I don't think I'm quite there yet with letting my 5yo out of my site. Maybe next year.

nonmember avatar Trish

My oldest is only 3 so I'm not quite at the independence point yet (unless you count leaving him in front of the tv so I can shower). But I can't imagine letting him ride his bike alone at 5 years old. Or maybe even 10 (I don't know I'll let you know when he's 10). It's far too scary and if I went against my better judgment and something were to happen I would never forgive myself. My child's safety is more important to me than me coming off like a paranoid mother, and quite frankly, I don't care even the tiniest little bit what other people think of me.

nonmember avatar Claire

I have always tried to let them do little things that allowed more freedom but I recall one specific time this past october, when I took my son (5) and a friend to the movies. I let them go into the mens' bathroom alone, whereas if it were just him and me, I'd take him into the womens' with me. It kind of worried me; who knows what could happen to a boy in a bathroom?? But all was well and he had a friend.

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