Self-reliance: A Quality Gained only with Practice

No matter how many times I attempt it, I still haven’t figured out how to be in two places at one time. My problem isn’t that I feel the need to be with every child at every event. I’m long past the guilt and fear that I’ll send a message of favoritism to one child while another feels neglected. No, the issue that still plagues me after all this time is something much simpler, much more basic than the instinct to offer maternal love and support.

This issue is transportation.

Never mind cloning myself so I can demonstrate my devotion to each of my offspring by sitting on multiple sets of bleachers, yelling “Go!” or “Way to go!” or “Go faster!” There are plenty of folks who will stand in for me to cheer on my children at any given sporting event.

No, if I could clone myself, it would be for the purpose of creating a fleet of minivans, each containing extra gym clothes, a replacement trombone and a box of cereal and fruit bars.

As it is, because I’m usually transporting another child in addition to my own to or from a practice or game, I sometimes rely on the kindness of my fellow parents to ferry my children to and from some other practice or game.

Every so often, though, the need to have my youngest child dropped off at home — where only Scotty the dog awaits her arrival – has left me feeling sheepish. When other parents discover she’s entering an empty house, they sometimes raise an eyebrow or even offer to take her to their homes and watch her until I’m able to pick her up.

Amy is 10. She knows the inside of our house like the back of her hand. She knows our dog. She knows where the Krispy Kremes are and exactly how much time she will have to eat one without permission before I arrive home. Amy is perfectly capable of staying home alone for short periods of time. In fact, she has been doing it for about a year.

Truth be told, when my eldest daughter was 10, she baby-sat the rest of her siblings while I made brief runs to the grocery store or the dry cleaner. I didn’t even have a cell phone at the time, which meant for 30 or 40 minutes, we were out of touch. If there had been a problem, Katie knew to run next door to a neighbor’s house for help.

But gadzooks! Tell a fellow suburban mom or dad you have left your brood at home alone and you may get the parental hairy eyeball — a look that says, “I would never be so irresponsible.”

I’m not advocating irresponsible parenting. I’m big on bicycle helmets and noticing strange cars in the neighborhood and letting me know when you have gone to a friend’s house to play.

However, I’m also big on letting my children practice being responsible for themselves. Self-reliance and resourcefulness are traits that can’t be developed in any other way than through experience. Given the high mileage on our family cars, we parents clearly get the importance of practicing soccer skills and a baseball swing and the violin – so obviously we get the relationship between rehearsal and mastery. Yet we’re systematically eliminating every opportunity for our children to rehearse and master a sense of independence.

It’s easy to become convinced that the world is a dangerous place for children. Thumbing through the pages of the daily paper or turning on the TV news can scare us into believing that only our constant supervision will keep our children from some dark and disturbing episodes.

Neither of those conclusions is true. The world isn’t so scary, and we’re not so powerful as to be able to prevent our children from ever experiencing pain or fear.

Yet we do have the power to help them learn to rely on their own wits. Giving children just a bit more freedom – whether to stay home alone or ride a bike to the drugstore or drive to the beach (on the highway no less) – offers the chance to exhibit the independence and maturity that one day will enable them to take care of themselves once and for all.

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  • This also was the practice of my own parents, and I am deeply grateful they encouraged, and then required, me to rely upon myself.