The Moment I Thought I Had Lost My Child
How a harrowing experience caused me to confront the dilemma of parenting in 2019
I thought I lost my son yesterday.
I had taken him to the park with his sister who is three.
We’re lucky enough to have multiple parks within easy walking distance to our house and during the nine or so months of daylight savings time we go to the park nearly every evening.
When we started last year, we went to the closest park to our house nearly every time.
This year, the kids have gotten quite good on their scooters and have asked to go to the park that’s a little farther away. Again, we are very close to these parks, so “a little farther away” means about a six minute walk.
We have a great time.
The kids bring their scooters, I bring a frisbee and a football and we play together.
Yesterday I played football with my daughter until she said her legs were too tired to play anymore. I switched to playing catch with the frisbee with my son and marveled at how much he has improved since we started.
At some point, my daughter asked if we could move away from the field and head back to the playground. I told my son we’d do five more throws and then grab our scooters.
When their kids got on their scooters, my son shot ahead like he always does. I turned my attention temporarily to my daughter since I had just been focusing on my son for several minutes.
And then we came around the bend.
And I didn’t see my son.
I was a little worried, but maybe he was just on the far portion of the playground that was out of view. I asked my daughter to speed up and I started scanning the area.
No sign of him.
I stood up on some bleachers and looked around.
No sign of him.
I looked in the play equipment to see if he was hiding in a tunnel.
I ran out into the parking lot and looked down the street that led to our house.
I didn’t have a perfect view, but I didn’t see him. I thought about running down the street to see if he can into view, but I couldn’t leave my daughter and I was scared to leave the park if he was still there.
Feeling foolish, I asked a couple if they had seen a boy on a scooter. They hadn’t.
I didn’t know what to do.
Do I keep searching? Do I call the police? Do I call my wife?
Somehow panic prevents you from taking logical, decisive action.
I pulled out my phone not sure if I was about to call the police or my wife.
The first thing that happened when I unlocked the screen was that I saw my photo gallery had been left open and just before we left I had snapped a picture of him. I had a temporary rush of gratitude. I had forgotten I had taken that picture but it could be important.
I hoped it wouldn’t be.
I hoped I would find him.
Just then, the phone rang, and I saw that it was my wife and I knew everything would be okay.
I picked up and she told me what I knew had happened the second I saw her name on the caller id: my son had gone home without telling me.
Safety, Autonomy, and the Responsibility of Raising a Child
It’s 2019, and where there’s a child, there’s always a parent around.
Currently, I’m reading a book called iGen by Jean M. Twenge about the generation after the Millenials. She reports that it’s becoming increasingly common to see parents among gatherings of high school kids of this generation.
I’m going to repeat that because I can guarantee that no one over the age of 30 was able to digest it the first time around:
It’s becoming increasingly common to see parents at gatherings of high school kids.
Now, this isn’t me becoming an old man and raging at the next generation. First of all, this is trend is likely due to changes in parenting style, not on the kids themselves. Also, not every trend is unambiguously good or bad.
- The teen homicide rate is down. Teens are killing each other less. This is an unambiguously good trend.
- The teen suicide rate is up. Teens are killing themselves more. This is an unambiguously bad trend.
But more parent involvement?
There are certainly ways that this is potentially beneficial, such as greater safety and the opportunity for more love and affection.
There are also potential pitfalls, such as setting the stage for a failure to launch.
The style of parenting that is becoming increasingly common has come to be known as helicopter parenting, because the parents hover over their kids like a helicopter.
This is in contrast to free range parenting where kids are given leeway as to how far they can go from home without permission or adult supervision.
These contrasting styles emphasize different values: safety and autonomy.
On the one hand, it is the responsibility of the parent to protect their children. The most straightforward way to ensure their continual safety is through continual supervision.
On the other hand, it’s the responsibility of the parent to make sure their child grows into a fully responsible adult. The way this has traditionally happened is with the gradual passing off of responsibility: yesterday it was my responsibility to make sure you went to the park and returned safely, today it’s yours.
For a while now I have seen myself as favoring a return to autonomy, and this is something that my son clearly wants. Last week he got out ahead of me and crossed the street on his own. Yesterday he left the park without me and came home. He clearly is ready to assert himself and his autonomy.
But are my wife and I ready to let him?
The chances of something bad happening are microscopically small. The kind of child abduction that we fear is exceedingly rare. But it does happen. And because the consequence is so severe, our emotional minds put a lot of weight on it.
I found this out yesterday when I realized I didn’t know where my son was and that he probably wasn’t at the park.
So what do I do?
I’d love to pretend like I have this whole parenting thing figured out and that everyone should just come to me for advice, but I’m wrestling with these issues just like everyone else is.
I probably need more time to think through things. I’m writing this less than 12 hours from what happened and it probably takes more time than that to see things clearly again.
At the age of five, I think supervision on our park trips is still warranted, even if he is capable of getting there and back. When he’s older I’m willing to let him go unsupervised, but how old is old enough? Nine? Ten? Thirteen?
I honestly have no idea.
And of course, we’ve let him know that if I’m there with him, he can’t leave without telling me.
One thought that occurred to me is that one of the reasons why parenting has trended to the protective side is because none of us know our neighbors. I was at a neighborhood park surrounded by people from the neighborhood, and they were all strangers.
There was a day where you would go to the neighborhood park and chances were you would know more than half the people there. I’m not romanticizing the past or suggesting we need to go back to 1950, but one of the advantages of not being able to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world was that you got to know the people around you.
Of course, we still have that option now, we just choose not to take it.
We’re not going back to the park tonight. Not because of what happened, but because we go to a church small group on Thursday evenings. We’ll be back at the park tomorrow evening and I’ll probably be on alert the whole time.
Last night my wife and I talked about our son’s growing need for autonomy and how to give it to him.
I’m proud of him for his courage in doing something new.
That’s a sentence I didn’t expect to write, but I’m glad I did because I don’t want it to get lost: I’m proud of my son for doing something he had never done before.
I love this quote from Hanna Rosin in the Atlantic:
One common concern of parents these days is that children grow up too fast. But sometimes it seems as if children don’t get the space to grow up at all; they just become adept at mimicking the habits of adulthood. As Hart’s research shows, children used to gradually take on responsibilities, year by year. They crossed the road, went to the store; eventually some of them got small neighborhood jobs. Their pride was wrapped up in competence and independence, which grew as they tried and mastered activities they hadn’t known how to do the previous year. But these days, middle-class children, at least, skip these milestones. They spend a lot of time in the company of adults, so they can talk and think like them, but they never build up the confidence to be truly independent and self-reliant.
I’m glad my son is safe. I’m glad I got to kiss him good night last night, and I’m glad that he is taking his own steps toward becoming self-reliant.
Maybe the moral of this story is that sometimes parenting will scare the living daylights out of you.
Maybe the moral of the story is that most of the time everything works out okay.
Maybe the moral of the story is it’s time to start setting some better expectations with my son.
Maybe this story has no moral, it’s just something that happened.
I’m not pretending I have all the answers here. I just have my story.