Protecting our kids: When is it too much?

First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 27, no. 6 (August 19-September 8, 2014): 13.

Last February, the family was out with a friend. My girls, as usual, asked to run off as soon as we were seated at a restaurant. There was an al fresco dining area with no other doors leading to other places. There were no customers there but the tables were set. I reminded them to be careful and turned to my friend and started chatting. In a few seconds, they were laughing and running after each other, going under tables and popping back up.

My friend commented that we were the only parents she knew who willingly let their kids run around in a restaurant. She added that it seemed my kids were so used to it because it was the first thing they asked to do. I replied that I wanted a nice quiet adult conversation with her, as we had not seen each other in a couple of years. If the girls were at the table, the conversation would be peppered with a million “Excuse me, nanay….” And besides, they knew how to manage themselves.

After lunch, we strolled around the mall and the kids wanted to go down the stairs rather than take the escalator. As they approached the stairs, I asked the girls to stop holding hands and go down each on their own.

My friend asked why I was not going to hold my 4-year-old’s hand as we went down four flights of stairs. Simple answer: she knows how to get down by herself. Why should they not be holding hands? Because if they were, they would be chatting instead of looking at where they were going. Both also have a tendency to run down the stairs and if they were holding hands and running down, the danger of falling increases.

As we arrived at the ground floor, I called to the girls and took their hands in mine. Again, my friend found it atypical, that I would let the girls run down stairs, but hold their hands on level ground. I explained that my only worry, every time we are out, is of strangers picking them up and spiriting them away. When not many people are around, as in the upper floors of a mall, I can watch the girls and they are pretty safe. On the ground floor with hundreds and hundreds of bodies, I can’t be too sure.

A month after, I read “The overprotected kid” by Hanna Rosin on The Atlantic Online. Rosin outlines research on children’s structured play, how parents are increasingly protecting their children to the detriment of their growth and development. She focuses on a new play area in North Wales, United Kingdom called The Land.

“The Land is a playground that takes up nearly an acre at the far end of a quiet housing development in North Wales,” Rosin describes. “It’s only two years old but has no marks of newness and could just as well have been here for decades. The ground is muddy in spots and, at one end, slopes down steeply to a creek where a big, faded plastic boat that most people would have thrown away is wedged into the bank. The center of the playground is dominated by a high pile of tires that is growing ever smaller as a redheaded girl and her friend roll them down the hill and into the creek. ‘Why are you rolling tires into the water?’ my son asks. ‘Because we are,’ the girl replies.”

The article continues to explain how parenting styles have changed from the 1970s. This is a western version, of course, but a lot of what Rosin writes echo true to modern middle-class Tsinoy and Pinoy families.

My mother often told stories of her growing up years, how she walked 45 minutes everyday from Malabon to Tiong Se Academy in Binondo.

In my day, I started taking public transportation in sixth grade. In high school, I walked from St. Stephen’s High School on Masangkay Street to the Kaisa office on Gandara Street, a good half-hour away because I walked very slowly.

Arriving at Kaisa, my mom would sometimes tell me that she had an evening meeting. She gave me bus fare and sent me on my way. I walked again from Gandara corner Quintin Paredes streets to Escolta and took the blue Love Bus from there.

These days, however, my mom avoids letting my girls take the jeepney as much as possible. She will take a cab and leave the car and driver for the girls instead. Only when it is unavoidable does yaya fetch the girls and they take a jeepney home. True, the peace and order situation here in Metro Manila has worsened over the decades. In reality, I fear for my children’s safety while they are walking home from the jeepney stop, rather than when they are on the jeepney. But this is a whole different story.

Back to Rosin’s article, she explores what goes on in The Land and details risks that children take. While there are two playworkers assigned to watch over children’s safety, they never intervene. At most, they will help a small child saw a piece of wood because the child does not have enough strength to wield the saw himself. They are on hand in case something happens, but they almost never stop anything from happening.

Take fire for example. The play workers say that a fire is lit in the tin drum on a corner of The Land on a daily basis. Fires are never stopped.

Before The Land opened, manager Claire Griffiths and the other playworkers conducted “risk benefits assessments” for nearly every activity that could go on in the play area.

“Here’s the list of benefits for fire: ‘It can be a social experience to sit around with friends, make friends, to sing songs to dance around, to stare at, it can be a cooperative experience where everyone has jobs. It can be something to experiment with, to take risks, to test its properties, its heat, its power, to re-live our evolutionary past.’

“The risks? ‘Burns from fire or fire pit’ and ‘children accidentally burning each other with flaming cardboard or wood.’

“In this case, the benefits win, because a playworker is always nearby, watching for impending accidents but otherwise letting the children figure out lessons about fire on their own.”

What have I learned from all of this?

I agree with a lot of what Rosin writes. According to the same friend, who told me to read the article because it reminded her of me, I am already a parent who lets her children take risks that other parents do not. The article made me more conscious of our parenting style and how the kids approach activities.

Achi is learning to cross the street. In the past, she looked both ways and told me it is time to cross. This time, she looks both ways and says it is ok to cross. I let her cross by herself, leaving me behind. I follow when she has reached the other side. We have been doing this on side streets where cars are few and far between. It will take me a few more years before I could feel comfortable about letting her cross a busy street on her own.

Shobe has been helping me cook. Instead of my old style where I supervise how she is stirring a pot, I have started leaving the kitchen. I taught her how to hold the pot handle, the ladle and how to make sure she’s stable on the chair she is standing on. Yes, she has been burned when her finger touched a boiling pan and when she tasted the food without blowing on it. Never again.