Michael Chabon, in an essay called “The Wilderness of Childhood,” brings a poignant question about raising children in today’s urban environment. He describes growing up in Columbia, MD, not far from Baltimore. Chabon contrasts much of today’s child-rearing, especially among city dwellers, with his own experience exploring the forests and landscape near his home. “Children endlessly revise and refine [maps of their worlds]. Childhood,” he writes, “is a branch of cartography.”
So often, though, we restrict our children’s movements, fearful for their safety. Some of this discretion is warranted, but we should acknowledge something critical is also being lost. Urban living brings with it many opportunities — of learning and sensitively to the world’s kaleidoscopic nature. But navigating city streets, crime, poverty, and the like necessarily causes responsible parents to think long and hard about protecting their children from harm.
This summer, I took my son Shamir on a camping trip to Cunningham Falls State Park in Northern Maryland. We had an amazing time, but our morning hike up the falls sticks out as illustrative of Chabon’s point. That day, Shamir was absolutely determined to track the river to its source. He climbed rock faces and leaped over water, sand and stone. He lead, I followed — and kvelled.
The only river near our home in Reservoir Hill is the Jones Falls. There’s a nice bike path along it and herons nest in the branches above. But I wouldn’t allow my son to go wading through that polluted stream, strewn with too much trash and run-off.
How can our children feel less encumbered in their own towns and neighborhoods? Author Lenore Skenazy published an oped in the New York Sun a few years back in which she described allowing her persistent, nagging, 9-year-old son to ride the subway by himself. Armed with a map, money and fare card, Izzie successfully rode the train home. For this, Skenazy has been called the “Worst Mom in America.” You can read about it and watch the Today show interview here. But many, including this rabbi, feel kids need permission to take reasonably safe risks. Skenazy’s blog and book (and parenting philosophy) is entitled Free Range Kids. How caged today’s children must so often feel!
Raising children safely is important, of course, but raising independent, resilient kids is also critical. The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) says parents are obliged to teach our children to swim. They learn to swim. We learn we can’t swim for them. Each parent must decide how and when to let go, but at some point, we all must do so.