I started babysitting when I was ten years old. I was left in charge of children younger than me and paid with a pile of coins on my dresser.
When I was fourteen, I rode a twelve-speed bicycle from Seattle to San Francisco. (My stepmom accompanied me, my brother and a sister.) For vast stretches of Highway 101, I was utterly alone, pedaling on the shoulder of the road as cars and trucks whistled past, sometimes blowing gravel into my face. We slept in sleeping bags . . . and didn’t even bring a tent along.
When I was seventeen, I spent a night alone in the Miami airport while waiting for my connecting flight back home to Seattle. (I’d been in Jamaica on a missions trip.) I can’t imagine my boys in the same situation. (I do remember some scary moments encountering overly-friendly men, but I simply set my chin and strode away as if I had somewhere important to go and something important to do. Seventeen. Imagine.)
So, I suppose it’s no wonder that when I was eighteen, my dad bought me a bus ticket and drove me to the local Greyhound station and sent me off to college. I rode that bus for days and nights, traveling totally alone to Missouri from Washington state. I’d never even seen the college before I arrived.
I can’t believe how loosely my parents held me as I grew up. I was allowed to circle my neighborhood on my banana-seat bike from the time I could ride without training wheels. As a teen, I had a curfew but also the freedom to ride around with my friend, Shelly, in her old yellow Volkswagen bug whenever I wanted to go. I rode public transit into Seattle. I rode my bike miles and miles and miles without ever telling anyone where I was going.
Now that my own kids approach the age of eighteen, I have no idea how to act. My own upbringing offers no helpful hints. I would never have allowed the young me to have the freedom that I was granted. (Or maybe no one ever really noticed me since I was never any trouble. That’s a possibility.) On the other hand, nothing bad ever happened to me. Aside from a few scares from weird people and a lot of catcalls from passing cars, I was able to navigate the world without harm.
How do parents do this? How do you know whether to throw your kid into the pool and let them thrash around or whether to cradle them in your arms as you inch slowly down the steps into the shallow end? When do you let go? How do you let go? Clearly, there is some middle ground and that’s where I’m trying to stand.
But it’s hard.
Hard to let go, hard to hold on, hard to imagine my kids in the big wide world without me right there whispering suggestions in their ears and reminding them to flush the toilet and brush their teeth.
I don’t know how my dad did it. He gave me the gift of independence.
He was brave to let me go. (I didn’t know until much later how much that cost him but that’s a story for another day.)