Was My Mother Negligent, Or Are Today’s Parents Failing At Teaching Independence?

Is teaching independence a vital part of parenting? I believe it is. Our job as parents is to raise our children up such that they can make their future better than ours was. This is not an easy task, but a large part of it is made easier when you instill a desire to be independent in your child. My mother did an excellent job of this. Here’s a small sampling of her technique.

I was born a few months premature and had heart problems as an infant. As there were not many of the things we now take for granted in hospitals, I was kept in an incubator and kept nourished until I reached the magical weight of 5 lbs. I grew and never knew I was different than my brothers and sisters (I thought they also got an EKG each year) until I was 5 years old. While in the doctor’s office to get shots so I could officially enter our public school system, my mother asked the doctor about what my limits would likely be in school. His answer, “He will know his own limits”.  A more false statement was never made by that doctor! My mother took that to mean that whatever activity I chose to do would be ok because I wouldn’t be able to go as far as most of the children my age and thus I’d be close to home.

Her big mistake was in letting me ride a bicycle! She used to lead the way on short rides through the neighborhood, but once we were able to ride without falling for about a month, the summer became a ride where you can festival for us. My younger brother Ron and I were the first to test our boundaries. We used to ride up to Princeton and back starting when he was 10. We lived about 6 miles from Princeton University and during that first Summer of riding, we enjoyed the freedom of not having to watch or play with our sisters back at home. The following year, we chose a different local to venture to. Washington’s Crossing. This was a more challenging ride as it had a few big hills. We didn’t tell my mother where we were riding, as we were absolutely positive she’d take our bikes away if she knew.

Whan Ron was 12, he found a 10 speed bike in the papers that was relatively cheap. He now had the tool he needed to tackle the next phase of our riding, New Hope. The ride to and from New Hope from our house was a 40 mile ride. It also entailed crossing the Delaware River at Washington’s Crossing and from New Hope to Lambertville. Once again we didn’t tell our mother of our plans. The biggest challenge on this ride was that we would need to keep money with us for snacks and drinks to keep our energy up. We strategically planed the route to take advantage of several small shops along the way. These rides were weekly at first and then we got a bit bolder. We went twice in a single week.

On about our eighth ride, we had just bought ice cream at an exotic ice cream parlor in New Hope when we were approached by a police officer. He talked calmly to us and asked us where we were from, as he knew most of the boys in the area from his work as a crossing guard at the school and we must have moved in recently. I told him we lived in Lawrenceville and just liked to ride here for the ice cream. That could have been a very bad mistake, as he then went to the phone in the ice cream parlor and asked what our phone number was. I knew then that our riding days were probably numbered, but when he was talking to my mother, I could hear her saying, “THEY’RE WHERE? and “NO, I WILL NOT DRIVE UP THERE TO GET THEM! THEY CAN GET BACK THE WAY THEY CAME!” The officer then told us, “you should have told your mom where you were going!” I suspect that had that exchange happened in this day and age, I would have been sent to a foster home and my mother would have been arrested on negligence charges! Yet all she was really doing was giving her children the freedoom and ability to be independent individuals that could get around and function in the real world!

On arriving back home, my mother made it clear, she hadn’t meant for me to be going anywhere I chose, so I used the card I had been keeping in my back pocket, “But didn’t Doctor Burroughs tell you I’d know my limits?” To which she replied, “Yes he did, but he also said your heart may not be able to take the strain and I don’t want you to get hurt.” We promised to let her know of our plans from then on, and took many other long distance rides!

My EKG that year was the first one that was very close to “normal”. Dr. Burroughs said that all that exercise was probably what fixed my heart problem. I never stopped trying to do the extra bit of exercise that if seemed like I needed and didn’t have a heart attack until I was 61! I’ve made it to 65 now, and still prefer to be active rather than passive!