Last week I had a really awkward interaction with a couple of the neighbor kids. My youngest called to them, so they came into our back yard– and after the kids said “hello” I ended up telling the two boys that our kids couldn’t play outside anymore and bringing the girls inside.
Many of the kids in our neighborhood have parents who have a much higher risk tolerance than we do. They are from a different culture (the parents are from Mexico), and clearly they are okay with letting their kids play in the street unsupervised. The children, ranging in age from under 2 to maybe 7, are outside on their own nearly every day when the weather is good. I rarely see the parents come outside. I’ve seen a little girl, less than two, play on our street with only her five-year-old brother to accompany her.
I could never let my small children do that. Let’s face it– I’m one of those paranoid parents who wants to mitigate as much risk as is reasonably possible without keeping my kids strapped in chairs. I encourage lots of activities, but our kids are supervised all the time. Yes, it was different when I was a kid (when packs of kids roamed neighborhoods on their own until dinner), but that really isn’t considered acceptable parenting these days. At least not for most families that we know. As parents, we pick up the kids from school, fill in afternoons with a variety of after-school activities and we keep the kids very busy. It is a lot of work to keep it all going.
Like so many of my generation, my parents were divorced, and my brother and I were latchkey kids. We walked home from school, let ourselves in the house, and entertained ourselves until our mother got home from work. We fought, we got into scrapes, we made messes that got us into trouble, but we also became pretty self-sufficient early on. I do understand that it wasn’t all bad.
When we lived in India, it was common to see families at construction sites. It was very normal to see a child (aged 5 or 6) carrying an infant or toddler sibling, caring for the younger sibling while both parents worked. These construction sites had plenty of opportunity for injury (or worse), yet somehow most of those kids seemed to do okay in what I would consider unacceptable conditions for keeping children safe. I can acknowledge that in many societies, children are given a lot more freedom than I am willing to give my kids.
And here is where the awkwardness comes in: I’m not willing to babysit the other kids on the street. If I let them come into our back yard to play, they will do it everyday. Our play structure and swings are a big draw. Then I would be responsible for these kids every afternoon, and I’d feel compelled to bring out snacks, and we’d become the place where all the kids on our street hang out. There could be liability issues if someone got hurt on the play structure. But the biggest issue is my not wanting to take care of anyone else. I have four kids, which feels like a lot, and I have no interest in being the caregiver for the neighborhood.
I know it sounds selfish. I’m not proud to admit it. But I have enough on my plate. So I end up limiting our kids’ playtime with the neighbor kids to when my husband is in the front yard, working in the garden. When he can supervise them, I’m happy to have our kids in the street, playing with the neighbor kids. I’m happy to bring out snacks for everyone. I’m just not willing to do it all the time.