Saturday, June 12, 2010

When it comes to our kids, how much freedom is too much?

To the great relief of many of us, 16-year-old Abby Sunderland has been located and rescued.

She had been attempting to sail solo around the world in her craft, Wild Eyes, when, during a storm in the southern Indian Ocean, a rogue wave knocked out her mast and satellite telephone connection. An emergency beacon signaled her approximate whereabouts, but it nonetheless required a valiant effort by an Australian jet pilot to locate her disabled vessel.

Naturally, the fallout from Abby's brush with tragedy has included a lot of judgments about whether or not her parents are negligent, much less insane, for allowing their young daughter, a lifelong mariner, to take on such a dangerous and daunting mission.

Every parent struggles with the amount of freedom to give a child. We may not be wrestling with their circumventing the globe, but the challenges are still constant.

And it begins when they're so young. Do I unharness my infant from her car seat, which requires a lot of torque on the old man's back, and take her back in the house with me as I retrieve her diaper bag, or do I leave her sitting in the car for an unsupervised twenty seconds? Do I let my eight-year-old set up a lemonade stand, where I look out front every five minutes, but not constantly? Do I let my thirteen-year-old ride public transportation with a friend?

I've decided not to answer these questions, since every parent owns a unique set of tolerance levels in his or her decision-making tool box. It's so easy to judge other parents when something terrible happens to a child, but there's such a fine line between overprotectiveness, which can leave children ill-equipped for adult life, and too much freedom, which leaves them at risk.

Children can also be treated differently based upon order of birth. As Bill Cosby once said, "When the first-born child drops his pacifier, the parent disinfects it in boiling water. When the second-born drops his, the parent rinses it off and returns it. When the third-born drops his binky, the parent just kicks it back to him."

So many decisions, and no owner's manual.

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