Recently, a friend of my son called over to our house and asked my nine year old if he could come over and play at his house. The day before this particular friend rode his bike over to our house to hang out for a while and now my son wanted to do the same and ride his bike over there.
There were a few reasons I hesitated in giving permission right away. My son has never rode his bike over there before and I was a bit nervous about him riding in the street. Although I have seen him ride around the park and in parking lots I have never let him ride through the streets by himself. His friend lived only about a quarter mile away and there were no major streets to cross, but I still worried about him navigating around corners and staying close to the curb and keeping his cool (and his balance) on streets that were more busy with cars than our own. Mostly I was just worried about him disappearing around the corner where I couldn’t see him, much less exert any parental control. He agreed to wear his helmet and to be careful going around the corners. Now that he was agreeing to all my stipulations it seemed inevitable that I would grant him permission to go.
I still hesitated… did he know the way? Since this was something he had never done before I wasn’t sure how capable he would be or what troubles he might encounter that I couldn’t anticipate. In absence of any personal history I used the history of my wife and I to try and guess where he might have trouble. My wife is legendary for having a horrible sense of direction. Once she got lost taking a jog in our neighborhood and had to knock on someone’s door for directions back home. My genetic bequest to my son was that if anything went awry I am easily flustered and capable of totally freaking out and having a breakdown. I am loathe to ask anyone for directions and I would rather stay helpless and lost then slowly think my way out of jams. I’ve learned to deal with these problems, as my wife has done as well, but I wasn’t sure how to deal with problems my son may have. I had to remind myself that my son is not made in my image, nor my wife’s image, but he is his own person. And in fact the only way for him to learn what kind of geographical curses he has inherited from us is to strike out on his own and do some of his own navigating. He assured me he knew the way but I decided I would go ahead and walk with him a bit with the two younger kids to make sure he went in the right direction. While I didn’t go with him all the way I walked with him until we saw the house he was headed for and I was sure he couldn’t get lost. The catch was that he would have to return on his own so I went home and tried not to count down to the time that he was supposed to return.
Of course he was late. His friend’s mother had told me that she had an appointment and that she would have to leave the house at a certain time and when that time passed I tried not to worry. In the meantime my wife had come home from work and was pretty freaked out about the whole new level of independence thing so I had to keep my composure. My wife grew up in Brooklyn with parents that never let her out of the house so she has had a tougher time than me parceling out some freedom to our kids like most parents do in suburbia where I grew up. We consider ourselves pretty easy going in our parenting techniques but this was becoming difficult as each minute passed. Should I call over and see what is going on? Has he left his friend’s house and gotten stuck somewhere between here and there? My fear was that he had come home and taken a turn into an unfamiliar cul-de-sac and lost his mind and was crying somewhere in somebody’s empty driveway, not knowing how to get home. Should I call over? I don’t want to seem as if I am rushing them out of the house but I called anyway at the insistence of my wife’s eyes. No one answered. I tried not to show my anxiety. I figured his friend’s mom was busy getting the kids together and into the car and that she would not have time to answer the phone. Or did that mean that they had left the house and my son was lost in suburbia somewhere in the process of losing his marbles? Now that my wife was home the answer became apparent to me, I could just ride my own bike over there and see what was going on. And that’s what I did. As soon as I got close to his friend’s house I could hear a basketball bouncing and I knew that they were still there playing in the backyard. I rode up and played a little hoops with his friends before it was time to go.
“Why did you come to get me?” my son asked after his friend had left and we were on our way home.
“Your mom was freaking out,” I said, leaving out the part of his dad’s increased heart rate. “She thought you might be lost or something.”
“I would just ask someone the way to our address if I got lost,” he answered assuredly.
“You know our address by heart?” I asked and he answered immediately with everything correct.
“But it would be pretty hard to get lost between here and there,” he added. “You’d have to be as bad with directions as someone like mommy,” he said and laughed dismissively. I let him lead the way home and he made all the right turns and he went around the corners slowly. While I wasn’t wearing a helmet he had fit his helmet on his head snug and tight like a pro. I wished I had trusted him enough to do it alone now that I saw how ready he was to take these short neighborhood bike rides. At least I was more confident I could let it happen next time. Turned out it wasn’t my son that wasn’t ready to make this ride, it was me!