Yesterday, the most terrifying* thing happened: my girls were unexpectedly home alone** for over 90 minutes! Their babysitter never showed!! I wasn’t home!!! Nick wasn’t home!!!! THERE WAS NOBODY HERE OMG OMG OMG.
* Except… It wasn’t actually terrifying at all.
Isn’t that the weirdest thing?
(** Also, they weren’t alone. But they could have been! More on that in a moment.)
On Thursdays, I teach piano lessons, so our babysitter, S, gets the girls from school, supervises their homework-doing and snack-eating and backpack-emptying and sometimes-playing, generally makes sure they don’t maim one another, and does awesome babysitter-y things with them. We adore her.
The girls walk home from school, but Ella likes to go independently, so S and Annie walk together, while Ella comes at her own pace. Yesterday, when Ella arrived home shortly after 3:00, as usual, she noticed that S and Annie weren’t here yet. After a few minutes, she began to consider that Annie was just sitting at school alone, so she hightailed it back, found Annie, and the two of them walked home together. They then said “hello” to the new lady who has been cleaning our house (I’d avoided the mere thought of a cleaning woman for years, but my recent sleepless balancing act caused me to count my blessings and reexamine my priorities; she comes once every two weeks, this was her fourth visit, and she’s been superb), and then pondered that they were, for all intents and purposes, home alone.
They tried calling my cell phone – three times, Mommy! – but the call wouldn’t go through, because they’d forgotten to dial 1 for an out-of-area number (yes, I still have my phone number from before our move seven years ago. I KNOW, I know). They also tried to text me from their iPads, but again, nothing went through because they “needed a password, but you won’t tell us the password, Mommy, because you don’t want us buying stuff whenever we want to.”
At least I know my meager parental controls are effective. Those in-app purchases can really be a bitch.
Because they weren’t technically alone – our housecleaner was working upstairs – they decided all was well, so they did what they always do: followed their checklist. Within an hour, they’d emptied their backpacks, brought their papers into the kitchen, helped themselves to a snack, and completed their homework. (Ella did technically bend the rules by reading aloud to Annie instead of a responsible adult, but hey, the cleaning lady was still working, so I can’t really fault her.)
When everything was checked off of their list, they headed out to play in the backyard around 4:20 – just as our housecleaner was finishing up. She, too, noticed that S was nowhere to be seen and contacted me, catching me mid-teaching. Given that this is a rare occurrence, I thought maybe something was up, so I asked my student to go ahead with her piece while I took a moment to check my phone (something I never normally do during lessons)… and had the following exchange with our cleaner:
I knew that something was seriously awry; S has never just not showed up, not once in several hundred afternoons and evenings spent babysitting our girls. So I apologized profusely to my student, explaining that now I needed to make a phone call, and dialed S, hoping that she’d answer, hoping that she was okay. The moment she picked up (people don’t really “pick up” anymore, do they? You know what I mean) and heard that it was me, she gasped with recognition. “Oh my God. I am SO sorry, Emily – my grandmother is in the hospital, and I’ve been with her all day, and I just completely forgot about babysitting.”
She then explained that she would leave the hospital immediately and get home to the girls. I tried to protest – Was she sure? Was it an emergency with her grandma? I could cancel lessons; I could call Nick? – but she was practically already out the door. So, after a failed attempt at contacting a neighbor, some more distracted instructions and critiques to my very patient piano student, and a few more communications with our cleaning lady, it was determined that she – the housecleaner – would remain at home with the girls until S could arrive.
When S got here, fifteen minutes later, I’m told that Annie and Ella essentially looked up from playing and said, “Oh, you’re here!” and then went right back to what they were doing. The cleaning lady went home. S played with the girls, fed the dogs, threw the ball for Langston, and then apologized even more when I returned home, promising this would never happen again and refusing payment of any kind for the time she was with our girls.
And… that was that. They played outside until just before dinner and got absolutely, deliciously filthy. They cleaned up, ate dinner, made their lunches for tomorrow, had dessert, read books, went to bed. The end!
Sounds terrifying, right?!
For so many families these days, though, this would have been terrifying. The What If game would have begun: What if they’d gotten abducted on their way home? What if they’d choked on their snack? What if they’d gotten hurt? What if there was a fire? What if the cleaning lady wasn’t actually a nice lady after all? What if she’d molested them? What if she offered them poisoned apples? What if they’d gotten scared? What if they’d gotten into an argument and knocked one another to the ground? What if they’d gorged on candy? What if a Jehovah’s Witness came to the door? What if aliens landed and tried to beam them up into their mothership?
Never mind that none of these actually happened, and that the girls were calm and happy and safe. Something could have happened. And those Could Haves and What Ifs are often so omnipresent – no matter how unlikely they might be – that panic and hysteria and anger frequently take over. Children – fending for themselves, not relying on an adult or being under constant supervision?? Unthinkable! Something awful could have happened! Fire the babysitter! Quit teaching piano! NEVER LET THEM OUT OF YOUR SIGHT AGAIN!!
At least, that’s how it so often seems these days.
But – and maybe we’re strange (okay, we’re definitely strange) – neither Nick nor I felt that way, not even a little. Yes, I was upset… but not that the kids had been on their own, nor that they spent time “alone” with someone we don’t know very well, nor that S hadn’t remembered to get them. (On the contrary – at first, I was worried that something had happened to her, and once I learned about her grandmother, I was heartbroken for their family. It never dawned on me to be upset with S.) No, I was upset that our lovely new housecleaner rearranged her afternoon in order to make sure my girls weren’t alone – upset for her, because I’m sure she had somewhere else she needed to be, and watching my children certainly wasn’t part of our original hiring agreement.
You can read stories left and right about how children are becoming less and less independent; how often they’re supervised; how little they play outside; how playgrounds are being closed because they’re “dangerous;” how college students are completely flummoxed when faced with doing laundry because they’ve never had to do it before; how recent college graduates bring their parents with them to job interviews (omg!); how every person who ever comes into contact with any child for any reason needs a CIA-grade background check.
It’s just… Nick and I haven’t bought into it. And, for the most part, our neighborhood hasn’t, either. Step into our yard and you’ll see loads of kids of all ages outside – with no adults in sight – riding bikes, running from yard to yard, roller blading, playing baseball in the cul-de-sac. Our girls are growing up where walking to school is encouraged, ironing isn’t just for grown-ups, and playing with hammers is par for the course. They earn and spend their own money, bake their own cakes, order for themselves at restaurants and stores, and sometimes even cook meals. Maybe it’s some kind of retro Pleasantville… but I’m so freakin’ glad that we’re a part of it.
About five years ago, I came across a book and website by Lenore Skenazy titled Free-Range Kids. Although I hadn’t realized it, Nick and I have been “free range” parents all along: we believe that Ella and Annie are smart and capable – not, to quote Ms. Skenazy, “invalids who needs constant attention and help” – and we treat them as such. We think that the world has way more good people than bad, and that the best way to allow our kiddos to grow into successful, happy, healthy adults is to give them the tools they need to do so… which does not include our hovering over their every move.
After attending a (funny, well-spoken, generally fabulous) talk given by Ms. Skenazy (one of my fellow mom friends was so taken in, she called out and asked if Lenore would marry her…), I was even inadvertently featured in one of her ParentDish articles, which resulted in commenters calling me a ridiculously irresponsible parent who did not deserve to have my children; some even called for my death (!). A year later, I wrote to Lenore to let her know how my parenting had changed – or not – since that incident. She posted my letter on her website, part of which read:
But also? It made me think. It made me re-assess how I DO parent, and made me look more carefully at WHY I parent as I do. And the outcome? I’ve become even more Free-Range! If THAT’S the mentality of others out there – paranoid, terrified, helicopter-ish to the max – then I know I *HAVE* to continue with Free-Range thinking and parenting more than ever, to ensure that my daughters grow up to be confident, strong, and capable, and to look at the world knowing that dangers do NOT lurk around every corner, that most people ARE good, and that they, themselves, are competent.
Confident, strong, capable, and competent.
I may have written those words over three years ago, but they are just as true now as they were then.
Did Nick and I want our girls to fend for themselves for nearly 90 minutes? Nope. Did we want them to be stranded by the babysitter? Of course not. But life is not perfectly in our control (if it were, there would be a Starbucks on my corner, believe me), and sometimes these things happen – and when they do, we’re doing our best to ensure that our kids posses the skills and the confidence to navigate the changes.
Ella and Annie could have freaked out. They could have completely panicked, worried themselves sick, and been utterly unable to determine what to do next. They could have been taught that predators and molesters lurk around every corner, and might have been terrified for our housecleaner to be with them. It could have been one of the worst afternoons of their lives.
Instead, when I got home and found them playing in a pile of dirt out back, reveling in one of the first warm days of the year – covered head to toe with filth – and said to them, “So, I hear you had quite the afternoon!”, they looked up with delighted eyes and said, “Yes, we did! We found dinosaur bones!” And then proceeded to hold up some kind of… bone… that is certainly not from a dinosaur and so I don’t even want to think about what it really is and why it’s lurking in our backyard.
When prompted, they admitted that they were worried… But not about themselves. They were worried that something might have happened to S. The rest? S being missing, walking home alone, taking care of their snack and homework and unpacking, chatting with the cleaning lady, and ultimately waiting for S to arrive and play with them? So unworrisome, they hardly even acknowledged that it was unusual.
But it was unusual – because it’s never happened before, because of how they handled it, and because of how so many other kids and parents would have handled it.
For a moment, when I first received the call from our housecleaner saying that S wasn’t home, I nearly did go down my own list of What Ifs… But then a strange feeling came over me, and it became so powerful, it drowned out everything else: gratitude. I was so grateful that our cleaning woman cared enough about our girls to contact me. I was so grateful that she was able to stay with them a little while longer. I was so grateful that S cared enough about our daughters to leave her grandmother and race to the house to babysit. I was grateful that she fed the dogs; that she played with the girls; that she took such ownership for her mistake. I was humbled that she refused any payment.
Sometimes, it really does take a village. Our village is tremendous.
When I took another step back, though, what I was most grateful for and astounded by was my children. Yes, Nick and I hope that we’re teaching them to be confident, strong, capable, and competent… but it’s rare that we have an opportunity to see whether or not our efforts are effective. But, you guys! HOLY CRAP. They walked themselves home. They fed themselves (a healthy snack! Not just junk! [Well, they did ‘fess up to eating some chocolate, and Ella squirted whipped cream straight from the can into her mouth… but it would have been disappointing if they hadn’t bent the rules a little, right?] They even put their dishes in the sink!!). They did their homework. They played nicely together and did everything that they normally do after school, flawlessly – so much so, our housecleaner didn’t even realize that S wasn’t here until it was time to leave. And throughout it all, they remained calm and happy, because they were confident in their own abilities and knew they were badass enough to smack this unexpected curveball out of the park.
They’re hardly perfect, and we’ve still got a helluva lot of parenting to do… But, yesterday, Annie and Ella were pretty much the biggest seven and nine year-old rockstars in existence. Hell, maybe we don’t even need a sitter anymore! Holla!
(Don’t worry. We’re not letting S go anytime soon.
But it’s nice to know that, in an emergency, Ella and Annie are the ones you’d want on your team. Take that, Jack Bauer!)
We learned something else, too: that we need to have our phone numbers written somewhere that’s easily accessible. S could have been contacted much more quickly had the girls been able to reach Nick or me immediately. Or maybe I should just change to a local cell number… Nah.
So, there you have it. The terrifying afternoon that was anything but. Nevertheless, we thought that ice cream was in order – not to comfort our “traumatized” daughters, but to let them know how proud of them we were, and to celebrate their levelheaded stupendousness. I can’t think of a better way to start Mother’s Day weekend.
Except maybe with the wine I had last night after I finally got home. Nothing may have happened, but wine is usually a good idea.