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Take Chances With Your Child



David Mills - published on 06/16/15

You risk everything if you don't

We were living in Manhattan then and our youngest and I were walking home late one night down an empty street in a perfectly safe neighborhood, along part of the street covered by scaffolding. A man came toward us, a youngish man, well-dressed with floppy-haired Kennedy-style good looks, walking a little cocker spaniel. Instead of moving to his right, he came straight towards us, so I moved to my left and my son squeezed up against the railing to his right.

The man stopped between us, bent over from the waist and leaned towards my son, glared, and barked “Really”? Then walked on.

Thinking Jon might be upset, I said jokingly “Really?” And then as we started to walk on realized the man was screaming. He was about twenty feet away and all I caught was “and come over there and smackyou in the head.” You don’t expect a man walking a cocker spaniel to be a psychopath.

We walked home, uneventfully, except for being nearly run over by a man in a BMW running a stoplight because why should he wait a whole minute for the light to turn green?

“Hey dad, guess where I am?” my son said one afternoon about that time, calling from who knew where. He’d ridden his scooter across the island (we lived near the East River) and up the west side along the Hudson and wound up somewhere around 125th Street. He was five or six miles away.

I told him to come home. We’d gotten him the scooter for Christmas with the idea that he’d ride it on family walks, but he’d started exploring the island on his own. Mostly he’d gone across the island and then around the southern end and back up, which was all a park or walkway filled with tourists and workers on their breaks and locals out for a walk or a jog. Then he started going other places, not so safe.

Jon was only fifteen, not the most outgoing of children and sometimes a little oblivious to things around him. But also curious and interested in the world. It was not a completely safe world — you might meet a psychopath with a cocker spaniel — but it was a world he wanted to explore and would grow by exploring on his own. Letting him go around Manhattan on his scooter was a risk, but a risk my wife and I thought we should take. Must take, actually.

But the fear doesn’t leave you. I know this very well, and suffer an imagination that can create ten plausible horror stories every minute. A few years ago, I wrote on the fear parents feel, beginning with the story of our getting a big trampoline for our eldest’s sixteenth birthday and the shock and horror of some parents we knew, who insisted on telling us they would never take such chances with their children. And look what you get, I thought, but didn’t say.

Just have children, I wrote, and a world of imagined and unimaginable horrors will present itself to you, and minor inconveniences or hurts will appear to be losses from which your child will never recover, and every decision and choice one that can lead as easily to misery as to success. Affluence does not make you feel more secure, but just multiplies the reasons you can find to be afraid and increases the triviality of the results you fear. Before I had children I had not seen how hopes quickly become fears, and how the deepest hopes become the worst fears, and how the fallen heart can manufacture reasons to be afraid.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, in response to all the stories about foolish neighbors reporting parents for what was once normal parenting, and foolish and over-zealous (or predatory) officials taking children away from parents who let them walk to the park or play in the yard or go camping. The rule, apparently, is “Take no risks,” but that misses the fact that parents take great risks by taking no risks.

You risk raising children who are as fearful and controlling as you are. You risk raising children who will not do anything if it isn’t safe and if it doesn’t benefit them directly, who calculate rather than enjoy. You risk teaching them to live by fear when you think you’re teaching them prudence. You risk all this to keep them safe, true, but also so that you don’t have to worry.

These are losses no one sees. They don’t rip your life apart and make the headline news. But they are serious losses nevertheless. It is not the way to raise a St. Paul or St. Peter, a Daniel or a St. Perpetua, a Dorothy Day or a Bl. Teresa of Calcutta or the Christians martyred on the beach in Libya. God calls us to raise children who will live so that someday a sword may pierce our heart.

It’s a small thing, letting a boy wander around Manhattan on his scooter. Almost certainly, nothing will happen to him. But it doesn’t feel like a small thing when everything in your world teaches you to fear the worst and demands you do everything to avoid it. It’s easier to say no, just in case. But we shouldn’t. Or rather, we can’t.

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng. 

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