Jack has always been my little momma's boy. He has been glued to my side since the day he was born. At play dates when he was a toddler, he'd sit in my lap instead of wreaking havoc with the other kids. He was the kid who would only let Momma make his breakfast, kiss his boo-boo, brush his teeth, or read him his bedtime story. At the grocery store, people would smile and wave at him with his cute, sticky-up hair, and he'd scowl at them and bury his head in my jeans. As you might imagine, his first foray into preschool was traumatic for both of us. This milestone is what prompted his sobbing quote, now famous at our house: "Just wanna stay with Momma all a time!" It succinctly summed up his whole mentality about life.
Throughout the earliest years, I gently encouraged him to be more independent - to leave my lap, to explore new surroundings and play mates. Sometimes, in exasperation, my prodding was not so gentle: "Go play with your friends! Momma wants to have a cup of coffee and talk to the adults!" Neither approach was very successful. Jack remained hidden in my skirts in any unfamiliar (and depending on his mercurial mood, sometimes familiar) social situation. I was not worried about his development. After all, I was shy as a kid, but I did feel a bit smothered by him at times, which is part of what caused me to enroll him in preschool at age two-and-a-half. The other part was, I was pregnant with his brother.
Now, at age four-and-a-half, Jack has become more independent. He still loves being with Momma and is occasionally somber when dropped off at school, but he always has an excited smile on his face when I pick him up and is full of stories about his day. I can now go to another room of the house without, moments later, hearing a blood-curdling shriek of, "MOMMA, WHERE ARE YOUUUUU?" Yes, Jack has a flair for the dramatic.
So the other day, we are up the street at a kid-friendly coffee house in our neighborhood. We had never been there before. While I was waiting in line to order, holding a struggling Gage football-style, I suddenly looked around and could not find Jack. I did not panic, because he is a cautious kid and would never run off, but I was surprised he'd left my side in an entirely unfamiliar setting. I soon discovered he'd been lured away by the Fisher Price toys in the corner on a small shelf. I then ordered coffee, drank it and visited with the other moms we'd come there to meet - no big deal.
Later on the way home, we passed a tow truck on our street. The driver was loading a car onto the bed, and Jack wanted to stay and watch. As we were already pressing it to get home for Gage's nap, I said no. Then Jack asked, "Can I just stay here by myself?" Mind you, this is way at the other end of our street from our house. I wouldn't have been able to see him from the front yard. I froze. I did not want to discourage his independence or make him fearful, (the kid is scared of lots of stuff) but I wasn't comfortable with it. In the end, I talked him into going home with us, and he was happy to see the tow truck drive past our house as I parked the stroller in the garage.
I thought about this incident a lot later that day: What was I scared of - that he'd run into the street and get run over? No, he is a super cautious kid, and even if he did, the odds of getting hit by a car on our sleepy, residential street are almost nil. Was I scared someone would kidnap him, like maybe the tow truck guy? Well, maybe a little, even though the odds of that are much less than getting hit by a car on our street. The bottom line was, it just made me uncomfortable. I realized while I've been working to get Jack to be more independent, now that he's becoming so, I have to get used to it. I admitted to myself, it was somewhat comforting to be in a store and feel his little hand holding my skirt, knowing he was right there and would not run off. Even knowing Jack and his careful nature, I was unsettled in the coffee house when I could not immediately see him. Now, I'm not saying I should have let him stay and watch the tow truck. Sometimes the instinct of "I'm just not comfortable with it," is worth heeding, but I do need to get used to not directly supervising him in public. He is a responsible kid, and the reward for being such is a degree of freedom. I do not need to undermine his self-esteem by unintentionally sending the message he can't be trusted on his own. This letting go I have to do is scary, but I do have to do it. This is the goal of parenting: letting go a little at a time so when they move out of the house they know how to handle themselves. I don't want my kids to be like some of the people I knew who went nuts and got into serious trouble after high school, because their parents had been very sheltering (helicopter-y, if you will) and they simply did not know at all how to regulate themselves. The bottom line we parents have to face is this: the risk of letting them out into the world a little at a time when they're younger pales in comparison to the risk if we don't.