When our daughter Hayley was just a few months shy of nine, we rescued a 12-pound poodle mix named Ava. Before bringing her home, my husband and I had a long talk with Hayley about the responsibility that raising a dog would entail. We even went so far as to make her sign a contract outlining her portion of Ava’s care, which included filling her food and water dishes after school, as well as giving her plenty of love and attention. Once Hayley turned nine that winter, we then allowed her to take Ava for short walks alone in our neighborhood.
Before moving to Austin, we were nestled in a quiet suburb on the East Coast. It was about as picturesque as you’d imagine any cozy New England town, filled with tree-lined streets, white picket fences, and friendly neighbors. Before allowing Hayley to walk Ava independently during the daytime, we showed her the routes to take, as well as how to guide Ava on a leash. I was very confident in Hayley’s ability to be cognizant of her surroundings and to stay safe. Hayley also had full knowledge of her address and phone number, and she knew to never get within arm’s reach of a car.
One afternoon after school, Hayley came home with her friend for a playdate, who I’ll refer to as Isla. I told Hayley she could skip her dog walking responsibility to have more time with her friend — ironically, I then received a text from Isla’s mom that same moment:
“We are on the crazy side when it comes to Isla’s safety. We both have nightmares that someone in a white van will swoop up our 55 lb. child and we’ll never see her again. We know we are nuts. Anyway, I know it’s Hayley’s job to walk Ava, but we do not want Isla to leave your cul de sac without an adult. Will you make sure they don’t walk Ava outside of your circle?”
First, let me say that I truly respect the parenting style of others. Not only did I write back and promise that the girls would not leave the vicinity without me, and I meant it — but I also understood where Isla’s mom was coming from. I know many parents are more sensitive about safety either based upon past experiences or simply their worldviews. You never want to think about your child becoming a statistic, and we sometimes go to great lengths to ensure that it won’t happen.
I was a little hurt by the text, though — not by Isla’s mother herself, but because her text heightened my insecurities as a mom and caused me to step back and evaluate my own parenting style. Was I being too “free range?” Was it wrong to allow Hayley to walk Ava? And if so, what else was I horrifically screwing up as a mom?
Being in the parenting community, we know that mom shaming is real. What hurt most about the situation was that Isla’s mom then texted other parents in the girls’ friend circle to warn them about playdates with Hayley — as if I was a negligent parent who was jeopardizing the safety of my daughter and her friends. Here is the exact text she sent, forwarded to me by one of the other moms:
Just wanted to give you guys a warning if your girls are ever going home with Hayley. Jessica allows Hayley to walk their dog in the neighborhood alone, and if your girls are coming for a playdate, they are likely accompanying her. Not a super safe situation, in my opinion. Just demand ahead of time that they stay in front of the house instead of roaming the neighborhood. I checked with Isla just to be safe, and they stayed home.
I guess the gossip and mean girl mentality doesn’t stop when you graduate high school.
I decided to poll my fellow parents of nine-year-olds, asking if they would allow their kids to walk their family dogs alone, after school, and in broad daylight. The responses were evenly split based on where the family lived, as well as the personality of the child. My mind then began to spin as I second guessed myself. Even though we lived in a safe area and I felt good about the decision, things happened everywhere. In today’s world, nothing ever felt perfectly safe anymore. I know the feeling of wanting to form a protective bubble around your family, almost like the weight of the world is on your shoulders as you struggle to keep them safe — bust after contemplating further, I held firm on my stance.
As a mom, I’ve never felt like I belonged in any sort of box, so I decided to create my own. I identify with the label of a “detachment parent.” I’m not sure if that’s even a real term, but if it isn’t, maybe it can become one.
What is a detachment parent, you ask? It’s a hybrid of sorts — we are stuck in the middle between “free range” and “helicopter” parenting, wanting to monitor our kids and keep them safe, but refusing to micromanage them as we do so. We aren’t fully comfortable with every free-range parenting philosophy out there, though we can surely identify with many — and when we hear a parent discuss “their science project” or “their dance recital” as if it were truly their own and not their child’s, we internally cringe.
We (mostly) watch our kids at the park, but we don’t climb on structures with them unless they truly need us, because we feel like they need to figure it out on their own.
We expose them to many adults (that we love and trust) because we want them to get accustomed to life without us and being cared for, taught, and helped by someone outside of our family unit.
We insist that they complete their own science and art projects, even if it means that the end result does not look professionally designed like some of the others in class. We recognize that this is their time to be creative, and it is their learning experience to undergo.
We let them have sleepovers with families that we love and trust. We want them to experience the magic that is staying up late with junk food and Disney movies, but we require a strong relationship with the family before we do so. Much to their dismay, we won’t drop them off at someone’s house that we don’t know — but we do recognize that these types of playdates are such a fun part of childhood.
We want them to experience the magic of summer camp and are happy to let them attend the right one, but we’ve probably spoken with the camp director to discuss the process of background checks and counselor requirements.
To me, part of being a detachment parent also means that independence is a central household theme. Hayley, now almost 13, has been packing her own lunch and getting herself ready each morning for years now. Detachment parenting also means practicing some tough love. In our home, anything requiring a parent signature must be completed the night before school. Hayley gets one free pass a semester, and then she’s out of luck. If she forgets an assignment, she faces the consequences at the teacher’s discretion. It’s ok to make mistakes, but what’s not ok to me is failing to face the repercussions of your actions. Today it’s a forgotten assignment, but what about tomorrow? Bailing her out each time might feel good to me as a mom, but in the end, it’s doing her a disservice and fails to teach her accountability.
Sometimes our natural tendency as parents is to hold on fiercely to our children, because we love them so much and don’t want to see them hurting. If we hold on too tightly, though, we won’t be permitting them to spread their wings or learn to navigate the world. My fear is that this paranoia and micromanagement associated with helicopter parenting, which of course stems from a place of love, is going to create needy adults who are afraid to reach their true potential.
Nobody’s parenting style is perfect. As a mom, I know that I personally make many mistakes. I’m constantly exhausted from being stretched in so many directions, and sometimes the fear that I’m not enough keeps me up at night. What I can say, though, is that I’m working hard to raise children who are confident and capable, and who accept levels of responsibility that I know they can handle. Sometimes as parents, the love we have for our kids can be so overwhelming that we don’t realize when it has crossed over the line to stifling.
I hear what you’re saying, and you’re right. Someday your child will learn to walk the dog around the neighborhood. We almost don’t want them to grow up too fast, though, because they’re our world — our entire identity is wrapped up in these little people and in being their mom. I hear you, sweet mama, and I understand. I challenge you, though, to take a step back and truly ask yourself, what would my child be capable of if I let her go? Would she stumble, or would she soar? And of course, you’ll always be there in the wings, waiting to catch her if she falls — but what if she doesn’t?