That ache in your guts is the price of your child’s freedom

You can protect your kids too much.

You can protect your kids too much. Photo: Getty

Okay, parents and grandparents, you’ve probably positioned yourself in the recent bakery conversation. If you missed it, in this story from last month, the inspiring Fitzroy Community College principal Tim Berryman urged us to be brave and give our kids more freedom – to park the parental helicopter and let them free-range a little.

An independent trip to the nearby bakery for a six and eight-year-old, he declared, was a measure of success.

Maybe you’re all guns blazing for free-range parenting. Perhaps you’re reluctant to let your kids go to the bread box in your own kitchen alone. But most likely, you’re wavering somewhere between:

Yes! – as long as there isn’t a major road to cross and they’re buying hi fibre/low GI.

No! – if there’s any chance they’ll spend the money on those buns with virulent pink icing.

Yes! – providing they are walking with others, have a phone and take the family dog, which happens to be a pit bull.

No! – unless you can go too.

So … what if the bakery was in another country?

A couple of years back, we were thrilled that our 15-year-old son was travelling to Europe with his grandmother. But then he asked: did we mind if he travelled from Paris to The Hague, in the Netherlands, to catch up with a friend for the day? Without his grandmother.

Nearly 16,600 kilometres away from us, on the other side of the planet, and 470 kilometres from his grandmother. Alone.

Well, not really alone. He’d be meeting, for the first time, a grown-up friend from the internet!

And, see, as I write that … there might be red flags for some of you. You’re placing yourself on the sliding scale of responsible parenting, as far away from us as possible. So let’s get it over with: despite our discomfort and – in my case – fear, we let him go. With a macramé pot-plant holder of strings attached.

We didn’t know his friend, but knew of him. They chatted a lot about a common, serious intellectual interest. We insisted on a brief email conversation with him that went something like this: “Hi! We’re the parents! Thanks for agreeing to host our 15-year-old for the day. He is looking forward to it but, as he’s just 15, we hope you’ll take good care of him.

“Oh, and did we mention he’s 15? Well, he is. Fifteen. And if anything happens to him we will hunt you down…”

Obviously, we stopped before going fully rogue Liam Neeson. The lovely young man responded politely and seriously, acknowledging our concerns and promising to take care of his guest.

We insisted our boy book his train seat in advance, so he had a framework for the day and knew when he had to leave. And he had a fully-operational phone. No phone, no ticket: no travel.

It would have been so much easier, and hardly unreasonable, to say no. ‘Yes’ meant living with a gnawing pain in my abdomen for months, but that was my pain, not his.

Full credit to his grandma, who ‘enjoyed a day in Paris’, strolling the Champs-Elysees and browsing Galeries Lafayette while her 15-year-old grandson traversed northern Europe. In other words, she laid in the  foetal position in her hotel for 12 hours.

For me, it was a normal work day, apart from the 12 hours spent on my own bed in foetal position. Oh, and I took a refreshing break from foetal position to imagine some of the headlines and blame-drenched social media commentary if our boy’s adventure went pear-shaped.

He had a wonderful day! He loved the train travel and the independence. His friend was a fantastic host, took him sightseeing and to lunch with his uni mates and, finally, to the station for his return trip to Paris.

Apparently, our son got off the train at the wrong station – simple miscommunication – but he and his friend averted disaster with minimal fuss.

He took it to the next level late last year, travelling solo to Hong Kong, aged 17. We insisted on accommodation booked in advance, a daily WhatsApp check in and worded-up a few nice folks that he’d be in touch if there was trouble. There was – just a little – but we all got by with a little help from friends.

As I write this, we’ve just packed his clothes, books and new doona into the hatchback and his dad is driving him up the Hume to start university interstate. I think he’s ready.

But me? Ready? A slow learner, I’ve only just worked this out: the gnawing pain, whether it’s origin is a visit to the bakery, to The Hague or to uni interstate doesn’t go away. Ever, I’m assured by the old hands at this stuff.

And so if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for a rest – in foetal position, of course – and a pink-iced bun. I’ve earned it.


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