The Fine Line Between ‘I can’t’ and ‘I can’t – yet’

To a second grader, grownups are magicians. We can reach stuff in the high cabinets. We can make toast. We can drive a car. We can produce endless LEGO sets out of thin air. We can do things their developing minds consider mini-miracles.

I kind of like it. Makes me feel useful and smarter than I actually am.

Our younger son got frustrated at breakfast trying to open one of those applesauce pouches. You know the kind, and come on; it’s the easiest thing on Earth to do, right? Grab the cap in one hand, hold the pouch firmly in the other hand, apply counter-clockwise pressure to the cap, and voilà! One of your oh-so-vital servings of fruit, ready to inhale at your convenience.

He could not figure it out. So, he threw it across the table and yelled, “I can’t!”

I retrieved the pouch and placed it in front of him, unopened. I bent down to his level and smiled. He crossed his arms and stuck out his lower lip.

I ducked my head to look at him eye-to-eye and asked, “Can you fly a rocket ship to the moon?”

He said, “No!”

I asked, “Can you drive a car to the movies?”

He said, “No! No! No!”

I asked, “Can you ride your bike without training wheels?”

He said, “No, and I don’t want to!”

I asked, “Can you determine the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”

He looked up at me and said, “What?”

Then I backed away a bit and, smiling, asked him quietly, “Can you put on a shirt by yourself?”

He uncrossed his arms and said, “Yes.”

He reached for the pouch and I gently swatted his hand away. He laughed and waited for the next question.

I asked, “Can you take a bath by yourself?”

He said, “Yes! A shower.”

I asked, “Can you go to the bathroom by yourself?”

He laughed again and said, “No!”

I looked at him sideways and he said, “OK, yes!”

Then I said, “You can’t drive a car … yet. You can’t ride a rocket to the moon … yet. You can’t ride your bike without training wheels … yet. You can’t cure cancer, or make a plan for world peace, or feed the world’s hungry, or invent a flying car. There are a lot of things you can’t do. Not yet. But that’s because you don’t have the experience you need to do those things. Your mind and body are still growing. You’re still learning. Everything is still new to you. You aren’t unable to do these things because you’re seven; your age is just a number. You are unable to do these things yet because you haven’t had the time to learn how to think, how to allow your intelligence to work on a problem until you find the solution.

“Plus,” I said, “you’re just too short to reach the cabinet.”

Then I said, “The answer you give when someone asks if you can fly to the moon is, ‘Not yet.’ ”

I asked, “Does that make sense?”

He shrugged and said, “I guess.”

“OK,” I said. “Good.”

Then I asked, “Can you open your applesauce pouch on your own?”

And he said, “No.”

Then he added, “Not yet.”

He smiled, reached for the pouch, and turned the cap with all his might.

Free-Range Parenting: Knowing When to Let Go

Free-Range Parenting

I asked our 9-year-old son if he thought he and his 6-year-old brother were old enough to walk the mile between our home and the neighborhood community pool without me or Mom.

He shook his head “no” before I finished the question.

“Maybe in one more year,” he said. “But right now … it’s a mile.”

He paused to marvel at the magnitude of the word, the vast distance it represents for a third grader, the incomprehensible here-to-thereness of it.

“There’s so much chance of bad stuff happening along the way,” he continued. “Like, what if there’s a snake or something?”

Yes. Exactly.

What if the mean streets of our suburban Central Florida neighborhood were over-run by an army of hungry Burmese pythons, on the hunt for new meat after eating all the rabbits and deer in the Everglades?

Or something?

Something like aggressive, stinging fire ants, which can swarm up a small child’s leg in an instant and inflict dozens of painful wounds.

Something like reckless high school-age kids tearing around the neighborhood like idiots on modified, rocket-propelled golf carts.

Something like a careless driver flying along far too fast to see two little boys alone crossing the road.

Something like open bodies of water – retaining ponds, drainage creeks and golf course lakes.

Free Range Parenting

Actual alligator sunning itself near the sidewalk connecting our house and the community pool. It looked hungry to me.

Something like the alligators that frequent those bodies of water. (Seriously. They’re everywhere. See photo.)

Something like a bad person looking for an unprotected kid to take.

Something like an over-zealous “good Samaritan” watchdog poised to place a panicky phone call to an over-zealous law enforcement agency that stands ready to over-zealously protect the children of the world from parents who have the gall to allow their kids to walk alone on a public sidewalk less than a mile from home.

It’s a jungle out there, right?

No. No, it’s not. Not here.

It’s a pleasant, 15-minute stroll, with broad sidewalks attended by shade trees the whole way. Wide strips of low-cut St. Augustine grass form a green, well-tended barrier between the walkways and the occasional passing minivan.

It’s a nice neighborhood. It’s a safe neighborhood. It’s the kind of place where friends respond gladly to neighbors in need. Crime is low.

This is home.

Yet, even in this idyllic setting, danger lurks behind every swaying palm tree. The seemingly tranquil stretch between our driveway and poolside actually is a battle scape.

In my mind, at least.

Listen, we trust our sons. They have proven worthy of that trust time and again. They are growing up well and confident.

But they’re kids, and we’re parents. They don’t yet possess the capacity to deal with crises — or even minor conflict — without adult supervision. It’s our job as their parents to help them learn those skills, and part of learning means failing at it. We understand that, but we’re not going to be irresponsible about it, either.

So, when they play outside, they must do so within shouting distance of the front or back doors. If they plan to go inside at someone else’s house, they must let us know where they’ll be and for how long.

When they want to go swimming, we take them to the pool. One day soon they’ll ride their bikes or walk that mile alone, but not yet.

Does a cautious approach make us helicopter parents? Are we over-protective? Too risk-averse for the healthy emotional development of our sons?

No. We aren’t over-protective. We are risk-averse, admittedly, but who in his right mind is risk-agreeable when it comes to their own kids? We aren’t Free-Range parents, either.

We are, simply, parents.

My wife and I are doing everything we can to prepare our kids to live life well. We also are doing everything we can to make sure they enjoy a happy childhood, and we’re in no hurry for that to end.

Confession: My greatest fear is that something catastrophic will happen to one of my sons, and I won’t be there to help them.

I’m not paralyzed by this fear. I don’t sit in the dark and rock back and forth, contemplating the horrific potential of the havoc rendered by the forces of darkness.

But the fear is there. I can’t deny it. It might not be rational, especially when you consider the statistics behind this recent Washington Post headline: There’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America.

Still, I want to protect them. I need to protect them. It’s more than a sense of responsibility or duty. The compulsion is visceral. It’s fierce. It’s real, and it’s not going anywhere soon – if ever.

This urge to shelter them from the harshness of the world is something I’ll have to work through as a father. As they grow, so too will I.

Part of being a parent is learning when and how to let go. It’s gradual, sometimes imperceptible, but eventually – they let go of their need for reassurance. They no longer feel the urge to look over their shoulders and make sure we’re still there. They let go and move on, alone in the world but ready for what comes.

When that happens, I’ll have to be ready to let go, too.

Not yet, though. Not just yet.

Maybe in one more year. But right now … it’s a mile too far.

Free Range Parenting

One day, he won’t look back to make sure I’m there. I need to be ready for that day. I’m glad it’s not here yet, though.