Sometimes being a good parent means doing less, not more

For many of my out-of-school hours as a child, no adult had any idea what I was doing.

This has everything to do with who I am today, in some remarkably good ways.

As a parent, I can’t help but wince at the lack of supervision I received, especially given what my friends and I did. We spent hours in really tall fir trees, pretending they were houses. I lived on Long Island Sound, and we swam at beaches without a grownup in sight, let alone a lifeguard. Even when my dad did come along, he read books while I dove underwater. (He may have glanced up occasionally, but every time I came up for air his eyes were on a book). We played at an abandoned, falling-apart amphitheater in the woods. We skated on a (mostly) frozen salt marsh.

I didn’t tell my parents where I was going when I left the house, except maybe to tell them my starting point. (“I’m going to Patty’s house.”)  I would be gone for hours, coming home at mealtime. Obviously, I didn’t have a cell phone. I would have been essentially impossible to find.

Fast forward to me as a parent: my children have been provided cell phones by middle school. I have grounded them for changing plans and not telling me — not because they did anything dangerous, but simply because they went somewhere and I didn’t know. And this is when they were tweens and teens. I was climbing through the rocks and marsh of the estuary at the bottom of our street before I was 10 years old — sometimes with my little sister in tow. The only time I got in trouble was when my sister lost one of her shoes in the deep leaves along the steep narrow path to the water.

There were times when I felt very alone as a child, and this probably has a lot to do with why I do things differently as a parent.  I was actually sad when nobody yelled at me when I came home scraped and covered with sap on the day we climbed too high in the tree and the branches didn’t hold us well. It was scary the day I misjudged the tide when I took the estuary route home from the town beach, and had to climb up a cement wall, find my way through a boatyard, climb over a fence and trespass through someone’s yard to get to the road. There were lots of moments when I wished someone were there to help me.

But because there wasn’t, I learned resourcefulness. I learned self-reliance. I learned that if I stayed calm and used my head, I could find my way through just about anything. These are lessons I carry with me to this day — and that have served me very well.

They are lessons that I don’t think our youth today are learning.  In our quest to keep them safe and make them feel loved and supported, we are keeping them from learning resourcefulness and self-reliance and other skills they need to get themselves out of scrapes — because you can only really learn them through experience.

Even knowing this, it’s hard to think about changing how I do things as a parent. There is nothing more precious to me in this world than my children. There is nothing that matters more to me than keeping them safe and well; I would be devastated if anything happened to one of them, especially if it were something I could have prevented.

Somehow, as parents and a society, we have to find the middle ground. We need to be loving, supportive, involved and aware of what our children are doing. But at the same time, we have to teach them about safety and teach them some concrete skills (like how to swim, climb, use tools, identify helping adults or think through a tough situation) to keep themselves safe when we can’t be there. And then, we need to take a deep breath, tell them we love them and let them go out into the world without us.  And if they call us and ask us what to do, we need to take another deep breath and say: you can do this. Give it a try.

It’s one of the many paradoxes of parenting: sometimes being a good parent means doing less, not more.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Boston Children’s Hospital blog, Vector, the Boston Children’s Hospital science and clinical innovation blog.

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  • NormRx

    Reminds me of my life growing up in the UP of Michigan. Usually every summer I worked in the fields picking and weeding beans with migrant workers. When I wasn’t working, my primary form of entertainment was chasing skunks in the sand pit with my dog and going to the town dump to hunt for treasures. When I got a little older and got my first .22 I would go to the dump and shoot rats. The only crime I think I ever committed was when my cousins and I would sneak into a neighboring farmers strawberry patch and eat his strawberries. Oh, what memories.

  • christie

    Ahh..memories of endless summer days being a kid, returning to have supper and then back outside again . Parents didn’t need to be as watchful back then. The world has gotten a lot more dangerous, many more predatory characters and situations.

    • Suzi Q 38

      I agree.

      Just read the paper or listen to the news.
      I would have loved to allow our two children (now in their late twenties) to have been “free range” children.
      Alas, this was not to be.

      I was a “free range” kid, and we lived in a rough part of town.
      If you walked without your “friends” or other family members, you got “jumped” or beaten up. As it was, I also survived a predator who chased me in his car while I was running on foot for what seemed like “hours.” I averted his capture by running in the opposite direction of his car. He almost cornered me in an alley. Luckily, I lived to tell about it.

      I was about 8.

      The next predator was my high school photography teacher.
      Enough said.

      Needless to say, I was careful with where my children were, and what they were doing. I made sure they had rides to and from school. Everything was supervised in the early years, of course.
      Later I had to let go little by little, until they went to college.

      They were let loose in a very urban college (UC Berkeley) and they survived their 4 years each just fine.

    • FEDUP MD

      This is patently untrue. Since 1970, rates of all serious crimes against children have been cut in more than half. The chance of a child being abducted and killed by a stranger is threefold less than being hit by lightning. We live in a country of 350 million people and we hear about the really rare stuff without realizing it is rare because of the intant availability of news. It is a different world but in reality a better one.

  • Ron Smith

    Hi, Claire.

    Good article.

    I was born in 1958 and raised in Arkansas. We lived in the country and the county seat, Arkadelphia, is still just 10,000 population.

    I remember days upon days of a trusted dog, a BB gun, and ten square miles of woods between our house and the edge of Interstate 30. There were creeks and crawdads, squirrels and birds, and snakes and deer. Mom never knew exactly where we were, and sometimes for all day.

    A bicycle later became a motorcycle and then on to a Jeep CJ5 with a winch. The wild logging roads and countryside was all ours.

    You know I don’t really remember the things we didn’t have growing up, but these kind of good things stand out. These are the kinds of childhoods that I long for my grandchildren and patients to have. There seems to be an inverse relationship between our societal ills and the increasingly confined boundaries of our childhood.

    Warmest regards,

    Ron Smith, MD
    www (adot) ronsmithmd (adot) com

  • Dr. Drake Ramoray

    Sometimes being a good doctor means doing less not more as well.