Growing up, I was lucky enough to have a girl my age living right across the street from me. In middle school, we’d hop on our bikes and travel a few blocks down a busy road to a place we nicknamed the Fun House. To the rest of the world, the Fun House was a drab, multi-level parking lot that served an apartment complex. But in our eyes, it was a hallowed and exciting place, our own secret training ground on which to perfect our bicycling skills. We’d spend hours coasting up and down the concrete slopes, dodging columns and parked cars, as our tires traced the sharp angles of each corner.
Then one afternoon, my friend took a curve too fast, and her handlebars collided with an oncoming vehicle. My friend’s fingers were badly bruised, and she needed a splint for a few days. Our parents were not pleased, and the injury effectively ended our visits to the Fun House.
I now have two school-aged daughters of my own, and the probability of them biking unsupervised around a parking lot is definitively zero. Such a scenario would be completely alien in my motherhood universe, a place where vigilance governs my decisions, play dates with friends receive advance approval, and I’m much more likely to tell my kids to be careful than to have fun.
Like many of my Gen-X peers with young children, I’ve noticed that my parenting style stands in stark contrast to the way I was raised. My mother and father were quintessential members of the Dr. Spock era – practical, self-assured, and generally unflappable.
A popular pediatrician and author, Dr. Benjamin Spock kept his counsel to new parents simple: “Trust yourself,” he advised, and my parents did.
I never got the sense that they were overwhelmed by the emotional rollercoaster of raising three children.
My father approached parenting in a rational, thoughtful manner, befitting his academic training as an engineer. “Be logical!” was one of his favorite sayings.
Every sibling squabble, every commute to school, and every dinnertime conversation was an opportunity to teach us something about life. While we didn’t always listen intently to our dad’s lectures, we did glean that he believed us to be capable and clever enough to solve any problem, if only we applied our skills and persistence to the challenge.
My mother, warm and vibrant, rolled easily with the chaos of our household, as if the noise and mess of three kids and our collection of furry, feathered, and scaly pets had a soothing effect on her psyche. If one of us was having an emotional meltdown, my mother was sympathetic but avoided indulging our angst for too long, often telling us to “just laugh it off!”
When I experienced bouts of test anxiety in elementary school, claiming I was too sick to go to class, my mother cheerfully applied a measured dose of tough love and sent me on my way. She even informed the principal that, if should I find my way to the office under the guise of being too ill to continue, I should be told a joke and then be promptly escorted back to the testing room.
Though my parents made it look effortless, I haven’t been able to replicate their laid-back approach when it comes to raising my own kids. Ironically, multiple studies of data like vehicle crashes and child abductions suggest that kids today are much safer than their 1970s and 1980s counterparts.
Compared to my parents, I should feel more confident, more secure, and more willing to let my kids navigate the world and all of its beautiful curiosities as they see fit. But I don’t.
Instead, I feel bombarded and rattled – by an endless stream of social media, by newscasts predicting gloom and doom, by political divisiveness, and expressions of anger and hatred near and far.
Dr. Spock passed away in 1998, and his guidance has been largely replaced by that of currently popular pediatricians, including Dr. William Sears, who promotes attachment parenting, co-sleeping, and babywearing, and eschews most forms of sleep training.
In a culture where smart phones are ubiquitous, we no longer page through baby books for advice; we turn to “Dr. Google.” But the information we find on the Internet is often more alarmist than helpful. “7 Bad Coughs to Worry About” reads one well-known parenting web site. “9 Seemingly Harmless Kids’ Products That Can Be Super Dangerous” is the headline for another.
To be fair, I can’t blame the Internet and our 24/7 news cycle entirely. I’ve always lived on the anxious side of the personality spectrum. Even though I long to be a fun parent, raising so-called free-range kids, my need to maintain some semblance of control has always trumped these ambitions. For a mind that spins and spins, control is a comforting illusion that I’m not ready to part with just yet. It’s far easier for me to choreograph play dates, keep close tabs on my kids when they’re playing outside, and ramp up my involvement in their schools and extracurricular activities than it is to step back, breathe, and trust that things will be okay.
But my kids are growing up, and lately they have started to chip away at my well-intentioned strategy. Each day, they show me they’re ready and eager to explore their world at greater length, whether it’s learning to swim, practicing cutting their strawberries with (gasp!) real knives, or heading to an overnight camp for the first time. In my kids, I see flashes of the carefree, idyllic childhood I enjoyed. Their enthusiasm reminds me that I cannot allow fear to restrict their opportunities for growth and independence.
I think again of Dr. Spock, remembering that he advised not only “Trust yourself,” but also “Trust your child.” I may not ever be a fearless parent, but I can trust my kids and show them I believe in them, just as my parents did for me. Perhaps it’s trust, not control, that is the most fitting response to an uncertain world.
Gina Rich is a writer and mother of two daughters. She has written for Scary Mommy, Ravishly, Mamalode, and Notre Dame Magazine, among other publications. She lives in the Midwest and shares caffeinated ramblings at www.lovehopeandcoffee.com.