I let my son run away.
The scene was our local elementary school. It the evening of his school’s 5k fun run, an annual fundraiser for the PTO. My husband had to work late, and I was taking my 1st grader and 3 year old on my own to the run. My plan was to push my preschooler in the jogging stroller while my 1st grader jogged or walked beside us. A half hour before the event, I couldn’t maneuver the jogging stroller down from the loft in the barn. The 3 of us would just walk, I decided. We lined up at the starting line. At the last second, my son’s friend ran up and grabbed my son’s hand. Did my son want to run with the friend and the friend’s older sibling? This was not part of my plan. But my son clearly wanted to, so I agreed and they took off. They ran ahead out of my sight and I realized I had let my son run away from me!
I started thinking worst-case scenarios. What if he somehow became separated and was running around town with no idea how to get back to the school? What if he realized I wasn’t nearby and panicked? Surely I would see him when he reached the turn-around point and was running the return route back to the school. Finally, I spotted him and yelled, “I’ll meet you at the bounce house when we get back to the school!” He was not crying. He was smiling. He happily kept running with his group and agreed to meet me at our designated spot at the school. It seemed like hours later (in truth probably 15 minutes) when I finally reached that bounce house with my 3 year-old-in tow. My son was there! He had followed instructions and was oblivious to my freak out. He proudly showed me his medal he received from completing the run.
Later that night, I thought about how important that experience was for my son, his independence and our relationship. Hopefully our situation will be helpful to you if you’re looking for ways to allow your child independence within reason.
Identify a safe opportunity. My son knows the area around his school well. In fact, the route he was running goes right by his grandparents’ house and we often walk that area as a family. The group of runners and walkers were made up of families, students and staff members from his small, local elementary school. I knew the child and family he was running with. While I still had some nervousness about letting my son run without me, we identified a safe situation for him to practice independence. My 1st grader is very cautious by nature and the fact that he felt confident enough to run without me was a big developmental step for him! Identify opportunities where your child can safely exert independence.
Make a plan. I wish I would have planned our bounce house meeting place prior to the race, but since his choice to run ahead with a friend was spur-of-the-moment, I made sure to check in with my son along the course and plan a meeting location. Discuss the plan with your child ahead of time. If you’re allowing your child to ride his bike home from school, is he required to call you prior to leaving the school? If the child walks to a friend’s house, what time is the child required to be home? What if it starts raining on the way home? Does the child have his address and phone number memorized? Make both a plan and a backup plan.
Connect. I piled on the praise for a job well done when my son and I met at the bounce house. “Look at that medal! I am so proud of you for finishing the race and waiting here for me like I asked. That was very responsible!” Take time to connect with the child later and review the situation. If the outcome is not what you or your child were hoping for, keep your phrases positive. Ask the child what he plans to do differently next time, avoid criticizing and encourage problem-solving together.
There are certainly ways I could have planned better as I think back on that situation. I could have prepped my son for the experience and talked to him beforehand about safety precautions. However, since he’s my oldest, this all new territory for us. It’s easy to become caught up in the day-to-day routine, overlooking small opportunities to allow my son independence. It’s easy to hover over my son, to tie his shoes so we can leave sooner and pick up his dirty clothes so he can go to bed faster.
But I want my son to become self-reliant, capable and confident, so I let him run away.
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