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This isn’t a post featuring a cute little personal story that illustrates my point. OK, so that’s a lie. See, today, I was dropping my son off at school. He had a doctor’s appointment this morning to get a vaccine (Polio). We talked to him at length about the fact that he could choose to do something that hurt quite a bit in the short term, or he could lose the ability to use his legs at all.

For the first time, my son chose of his own volition to do something that hurt, because he understood that the long-term consequences would be a lot worse than the short-term pain. (The last time we had a talk like this, he was refusing to have a sliver taken out of his foot…and he never did let us take the sliver out. We had to wait until he was asleep and sneak it out of his foot.) So that was remarkably mature of him. He still squealed and squirmed, but before we left the doctor’s, he hugged the nurse and thanked her. He likes his legs.

That’s not actually the story, though. That’s just why we were dropping him off at school. The real story is that when we dropped him off at school, we just dropped him off. It was the first time that he walked himself to class, unattended, like a real boy. It seems like such a small thing in retrospect, but maybe because he handled his shot so well, it really hit home.

It’s made me think a lot about the supposed dichotomy between safety and independence. If you let your kid be independent, the logic goes, they’ll naturally be less safe because they won’t have you there to keep watch over them. But I have a pretty clear memory of being six years old.

When I was six, my parents moved from La Selva Beach, California (Santa Cruz) to Sequim, Washington. We lived in a small neighborhood on Ridgeview Drive, which is — no joke — just off of the corner of Woodcock and Kitchen Dick. We only lived there for a year or so, but during that time, I learned to roam. The neighborhood had a dozen or so kids my age, some as far as a mile down the road, and we freely roamed from one friend’s house to another without a whole lot of supervision.

I learned in that year that there was a dairy a mile or so up Woodcock road — easily within biking distance — owned by the family of one of my friends. We frequently biked up there (despite my mom’s stern warnings not to bike on the ‘big road’) and “stole” chocolate milk out of their giant refrigerator. There was also a golf course adjacent to the neighborhood, and we occasionally crept out there late at night and “collected” golf balls.

Keep in mind, this was when I was six. Just a year older than my son is right now. But today, the attitude seems to have changed completely. Today, it seems like if you let your kid out of your sight, even for a moment, you’re a horrible parent. I already did a post a few weeks ago about how overblown the fear of abduction is — and I wonder if all of the other fears we clutch to our chests aren’t just as ridiculous given the actual statistics on how rare real dangers are.

I can’t help but wonder if this is caused by — or the cause of — the slow conversion of companies into ‘helicopter parents’ that are constantly watching out for things that might hurt us; trying to ‘protect’ us. If you’ve ever seen a warning label on a hair dryer that states “Do Not Use While Sleeping”, you know what I’m talking about. If we rear our children with the constant understanding that they’re being watched over and saved from every danger that comes their way, are we raising them to be responsible for themselves? What kind of expectations are we giving them about the role of common sense in their lives?

I’m not one of those Darwinian parents who plans to throw his son out into the world and hope he survives. But I think that there’s a lot of value in emphasizing independence and solving your own problems. I’m not sure how to do that, per se, but I’m going to do what I can. I don’t believe that it’s realistic or even possible to go the Heinleinian “Specialization is for insects” route — interdependence is the strongest asset humankind has — but there are some things that just shouldn’t be handed up the chain, and I want my son to get that.

So, from this point forward, I’m going to keep my eye out for opportunities to encourage my son to do things without me — to allow him to make his own mistakes within a reasonable set of circumstances. We’re planning on signing him up for a children’s cooking class next month. I’m pretty sure they’re not going to be using children’s scissors to chop the turkey for the Turkey Chili. Or cooking on some sort of magical child-proof oven. I totally encourage that. I already have him helping me in the kitchen occasionally, and my wife really wants to get him in there more often. It’s the perfect environment for controlled danger and mild chaos — which is exactly what I think he needs.

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