“I’m not letting my kids do [insert any activity here] alone! There are too many crazy people out there! Things are different now, and more dangerous!”

Do you find yourself thinking thoughts like this? Full of anxiety about the outside world, and how and what dangers are lurking in it that could threaten the safety and well-being of your children?

You’re not alone.

I spent years with my mind held hostage by irrational thoughts like these, and in doing so, inadvertently kept my children from experiencing many normal childhood experiences. Except these days, we actually don’t see them as “normal”. It’s become so rare for children to have unsupervised activities and alone time, that when we’re privy to seeing them be actual “free” children, to us it appears wrong and neglectful. We wrongly translate it as putting them at high risk for injury, death, kidnapping—and a whole host of other statistically nil things we’ve wound our mind into believing happen at a much higher rate than they actually do.

Why—when childhood is safer than ever before—do we believe in only potential horrors, and continue to smother our children? For starters, we live in a 24-hour news cycle, where our constant thirst for breaking news (especially something involving tragic and heart tugging events surrounding children) has reached an all time high, and media outlets are still quick to push stories that align with the potentially high viewer rating notion that “if it bleeds, it leads”.

And so, when the rarity of an accident involving a child occurs, it’s in our faces, our newsfeeds, our social media channels, all over the place, fueling the fires of anxiety and panic. After a decade of living day-to-day like this, it’s no wonder that when someone sees a child playing at a park alone, they feel the need to call the police—to protect that child from what they’ve seen and heard can “happen” to them.

This kind of panicked childhood culture had produced bubble-wrapped children, living in antiseptic worlds and being raised on the end of metaphorical leashes. And sadly, that is our new normal. Ironically it’s the opposite—and the much more healthy of the two, to raise children with no “leash” at all, and allow them to explore freely the world around them with little to no supervision. That kind of parenting—also known as free-range parenting, was first discussed in Lenore Skenazy’s controversial but best-selling book “Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts with Worry.” She was once coined “America’s Worst Parent” for allowing her then 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway without an adult. She has since become a pioneer of parenting with less supervision, helping anxious parents release their fears and embrace the freedom both their kids and themselves desperately need.

But how do we get to that point? To the point of being able to not allow the “what ifs” overtake our sensibilities, and to faithfully de-harness our children from our grip and release them to the world?

We do it like we do anything else that is new, difficult and challenging. We do it with baby steps, growing our confidence little by little, until the “What ifs” morph first into reactions made of  “Wows!” and then into reactions of nothing really, because your child’s newfound independence and confidence will have become a new normal. Knee-jerk hesitations and apprehensions about what your kid can and can’t do on his own (and what is potentially dangerous), will come with less frequency.

Are the baby steps easy? Hardly. They’re excruciatingly challenging, and you’ll be forced into experiencing feelings that will physically hurt. Your mama bear instincts will be put to the ultimate test, and you’ll be fighting hard the necessity of letting go, striving to keep them under your wing with the strongest of claws. But having the strength and faith to let your kids do more things alone, and allowing them to do and manage tasks at an age younger than what you (and society) think is appropriate, is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your children.

Being less afraid of the world, and modeling that to your children by way of allowing them to actually live in it without your fears, hovering presence, and insistence that it’s not safe out there, is an exercise in faith that mothers need to flex on a daily basis. By doing so, you’ll build up the emotional strength that’s going to be required of you to let them fully leave your nest when they grow into adults. And that kind of emotional strength is practically superhuman. Trust me. I’ve sent kids away to college. I know.

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Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer, adjunct librarian, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Awareness Ambassador. She writes at http://www.4boysmother.com/. Her writing can be found all over the internet, but her work is mostly on the dinner table.

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