I recently read an essay by America's Worst Mom, Lenore Skenazy. She earned this dubious title by allowing her nine year old son to ride the subway home in NYC by himself.
Before I read the details, I too was ready to dub her an unfit parent. What was she thinking? Allowing a nine year old to navigate New York City and its public transportation system by himself? Then I read the details and her reasoning.
Skenazy makes some very interesting points. Crime is down relative to when I was a kid. In the 1960's I lived in Baltimore, where I rode public transportation three miles home from my first grade glass, admittedly with a group of other kids - but none of them was older than 10. Do we really think the streets are more dangerous now than they were then?
More importantly, how can we expect our children to grow into independent adults if we don't let the leash out a bit. How old IS old enough to maneuver a city's public transportation system to get home? Ultimately, the answer to that question is: When your child is ready. This is exactly the point Skenazy made. She felt that her child was ready for that level of independence.
How old does your child have to be to be able to stay home by themselves for several hours after school? How old to be allowed to have a friend over when there are no supervising adults in the house? How old to drive?
That last one is an ongoing discussion in our house. My son turned 16 in April. Many of his friends immediately got the driver's licenses within a week of the celebration. We are in no hurry. Grendel is very intelligent. However, Grendel can be a real space case.
This weekend, he spent Friday night at a friend's house. We asked that he take his cell phone. We also asked for the number at the house in case he didn't answer his cell phone (a frequent occurrence when he's at other people's houses). Around lunch time on Saturday, I decided to call him to find out when he was coming home. He did not answer his cell phone. I called the (supposed) house number. It turned out that the number was for his friend's cell phone, which also went unanswered. I looked up the parents in the local phone directory and called the listed number: disconnected. I eventually sent a text message to Grendel's phone telling him to call me. He did call me about 15 minutes later.
Considering the circumstances, and his past history with unreachability and inability to return home at appointed times, I informed him that he was grounded until he obtained employment. He's been talking-the-talk about getting a job for months. We have insisted that he work or volunteer his time this summer. He accepted his grounding gracefully, fully accepting that he had screwed up in this regard again. To make sure that he came home in a timely fashion, I put consequences on levels of lateness involving his ability to attend a church activity next weekend. Again, he fully accepted the arrangement. He even showed up 10 minutes before the first consequence would have hit.
I want Grendel to drive. I like the idea of him taking himself to activities when I don't feel like leaving the house. However, I am not willing to give him that freedom when I cannot trust that I will know where he is, be able to reach him, and be assured that he will make every effort to return home by an agreed upon time. I do not need that kind of aggravation.
There are probably plenty of nine year olds out there who are quite capable of navigating a subway system. Just like there are probably plenty of sixteen year olds out there who can remember to keep their cell phone in their pocket and make sure that they get home when they agreed they would. Every parent needs to know their child well enough to know when they are ready to attempt to take on the next level of personal responsibility for themselves. The parent also needs to appreciate their own tolerance for uncertainty.
Maybe I'm not ready for the level of uncertainty in letting Grendel drive just yet. Hopefully, soon.