By Maile Meloy
It may be a scary prospect, but giving your children space to roam is good for them – and you, says Maile Meloy
I went to Hawaii this spring with three families, to a hotel on a shallow turquoise beach. The hotel curved along the shore, far from the road, and had a kids’ club. The children could run around in a pack. There was nowhere to get lost or kidnapped. Even drowning looked like a challenge in the clear, knee-high water. It struck me that holiday plans for children – at the beach, at summer camps – are designed to give parents a reprieve from their lives as air-traffic controllers and shuttle drivers, and also to give their offspring some independence. ‘Don’t do anything dangerous,’ I heard a man at the hotel say to a child hanging upside down on a handrail along the vast lawn. ‘I don’t want you to crack your head. Do you think you can survive alone out here?’
All week, I kept thinking about that question asked on the protected lawn at the child-friendly hotel: ‘Do you think you can survive alone out here?’ Children, of course, survive horror, war and deprivation every day. Many acquire more self-reliance than anyone needs. Some make their own spears to catch fish in the Amazon. But that doesn’t make the fears of a child cracking her head open while swinging on a handrail any less real.
Full disclosure: I don’t have children. I’m happy as an aunt and godparent. I have a four-year-old nephew I adore, who can and will climb anything and thinks he’s a superhero. I know he has a good sense of what heights he can scale and that the occasional fall is important for defining those boundaries – but it’s a little terrifying. I can handle the adrenalin, vertigo and constant risk analysis for a few days but could I handle it full-time for 18 years? I’m not sure. ‘They’re constantly flirting with danger,’ the mother of a five-year-old told me. ‘I’m telling you – every minute.’
Another friend, an older mother, told me she can’t stop reading stories of terrible things happening to children: fires, kidnappings, the two-year-old snatched by an alligator at the Disney resort in Orlando last year. She’ll click on every awful story on the internet. It’s as if by knowing all the tragic possibilities she can prevent them.
Others can’t even look at those stories. Everyone processes fear differently, and has to separate the anxieties and traumas of their own childhood from actual dangers, to be able to function.
I was a lifeguard for years so I’m a scanner by habit, always counting heads. I had just waded into the Hawaiian surf one morning with a mask and snorkel when one of the dads shouted his son’s name. Then he shouted mine. He was pointing to the water beyond me. Sure that a child was in trouble, I got ready to plunge to the rescue. But the dad was pointing at a round, dark shadow. I put my face in the water and saw a sea turtle, stubby legs waving up and down as it cruised by, unhurried. It eyed me and I swam alongside, fear replaced by wonder. I thought how good it would be if we could all manage more wonder about the world and less fear.
I grew up in a small city on the edge of the Rocky Mountains in the 1980s with trails leading from our back door and a big extended family. I could walk or cycle to school, to my friends’ houses and to the market that sold sweets and comics. In the summer we spent afternoons at the pool until our fingertips pruned. We knew the lifeguards; they knew our parents. We had some scary moments – a fight on the walk to school, a creepy guy hanging around the public library – and we probably could have used some more monitoring, but we had no sense that we needed it.
I got a learners’ permit to drive at 14 and a licence at 15 – younger than most places in the US allow. Kids from my school died in car accidents and we all did stupid things; I’m lucky to have made it through unscathed. Seatbelt-wearing was haphazard then; today’s car seats for children are much safer. Parents have become more vigilant. You can even track your kid on your phone.
But some changes feel like a loss. Our relatively independent childhoods made us resourceful and gave us skills. Being able to wander on your own, to solve problems and escape dangers creates a sense of self-reliance that’s hard to duplicate, even on a beach holiday or at summer camp. For parents, the habit of vigilance is hard to turn off. They try to relax and enjoy themselves but the fear remains that calamity will strike, so they spend the holiday sort of relaxed and sort of stressed out.
At the beach hotel, we were sitting at lunch when a 13-year-old called his mother to say that they’d lost the littlest boy in their group – someone else’s child – at the tennis court. She told him and his sister to check the beach because that was the most dangerous place. Then she called the boy’s mother and ran to check the tennis court, panicking and blaming herself. The boy turned up in his hotel room and everyone started to breathe again.
At sunset, the children were playing in the tiny waves on boogie boards, becoming more confident in their swimming. The parents were standing on the sand, drinking piña coladas in straw hats and cover-ups. When the sun neared the horizon, huge and orange over the water, the children became impossible to see, cast into blinding silhouette. So the parents threw off their dry clothes and waded in to keep a closer eye on them.
At dinner, the children ate at their own table across the restaurant, giddy with freedom. At the adults’ table, we talked about a new study showing that empathetic parents have chronic low-grade inflammation from being flooded with the stress hormone cortisol when they feel their children’s pain. Everyone in the family is psychologically healthier but the parents are more susceptible to disease. The mothers moaned, ‘Oh, great,’ and reached for their drinks.
I believe in letting children have some leeway, pushing through the fear, letting them find their own resourcefulness so they can deal with life’s challenges. But I also understand how hard it is to do that and how your child’s inevitable distress can settle into your body’s cells and wreak havoc.
When I got home, a friend emailed me about his son, who’s 11 and in a school play in New York. He said, ‘I follow him on my iPhone as I watch him leave rehearsal in the dark to go to the subway alone. And I can see that he is taking a route I have told him not to take – but I’m probably not going to give him any crap about it because he’s old enough to break some rules.’
He wants his son to make his own choices and trust his capability. Letting that invisible tether stretch, knowing when to step in and when not to, is one of the hardest things parents have to do.
And when disaster strikes it’s hard to maintain our empathy for other parents and not to judge them instinctively. When the alligator took the two-year-old from the lagoon at the Disney resort in Florida, his father was a few feet away and people held the parents responsible. But it happened so fast; others said everyone let their children play in the same way. The idea that you could lose a child so quickly and not be able to prevent it, is unimaginable. So our first thought is that we could have kept it from happening, when in truth, disasters are impossible to anticipate.
The lottery of birth puts some children in danger, no matter what their parents do. The place they’re born, the colour of their skin or the way their pancreas functions can stack the deck against them from the start – and yet so often they thrive. Children are more resilient than we think. If they’re encouraged to take risks and make mistakes – mistakes that can be lived with – they learn how to survive when no parent is there to protect them, whether on the lawn or out in the world.
‘It’s all joy and terror,’ a new mother told me. ‘But that’s the risk with any love, isn’t it?’
Maile’s new novel Do Not Become Alarmed is published by Penguin, price £8.99. To order a copy for £6.74 (a 25 per cent discount) until 27 August, go to you-bookshop.co.uk, or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.