Unaccompanied Minors

One mother-to-be seeks the elusive balance between keeping her child safe and instilling a true sense of independence.

July 2013

As the initial shock lingered, my mind reached back to riding bikes with my brother to our Chicago-area elementary school playground, playing after-school pickup roller hockey games two blocks over, and building tepees in the forest behind our suburban cul-de-sac. I made a mental checklist of things my future child wouldn’t be able to do in our current neighborhood. Ride bikes to the park? Nope. Meet friends at Sloan’s Lake for pickup soccer? Not without me trailing behind. Have an unsupervised squirt-gun fight in our yard? Maybe, if we weren’t so close to Federal and Colfax.

When I was growing up, going anywhere without parents was a privilege. My first memory of my brother, Nick, and I walking alone, to a nearby Dairy Queen, was also my first memory of the word that structured all future excursions: trust. I was nine; Nick was 18 months younger. We’d walked to and from elementary school many times, but we’d never enjoyed our very own outing. Sitting in the shade of the garage after a fierce game of one-on-one hoops, we decided to ask our parents if we could go on a DQ Blizzard run.

Their answer was frank: “Walk straight to Dairy Queen. Stay with each other and check in when you get back. We trust you. Don’t lose it, because it’s tough to earn back.”

They’d taught us all about “stranger danger” and how to cross a busy intersection, and they made it clear that if we wanted to make that trip alone again, we should eat our ice cream on the walk home and not linger at the strip mall. The jaunt was spectacularly uneventful; we were back to driveway basketball before our chocolatey cookie dough treats could melt. This earned us longer trips to the library, the neighborhood pool, and a nearby creek. The trust of our parents, along with reminders that a few poor decisions could extinguish it, empowered us both.