As parents we walk a thin line between protecting our children and allowing them to become more independent as they get older. Of all of the things that I have experienced with my children, this has been one of the most anxiety-inducing and difficult. How do you allow the most precious people in your world to go out into the real world which seems so full of threats and danger? It reminds me of the quote:
“Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ” ― Elizabeth Stone
I try to explain to my children why I do the things I do and I am open to negotiation with them. When they were younger I would never let them out of the house without adult supervision – we live near a busy road and have a petrol station on the corner. We also have drunks and vagrants in the area, a lot of people passing through as it is becoming an area with a high churn of people moving in and out and one neighbour who seem to be selling something to the teenagers that live locally. This meant that even if I had to cross the road to get milk, I would have to go myself and take the children with me rather then leave them at home alone. Now they are older, I send the older two out to get things from the shops. I initially insisted that they go together, walk down two blocks to cross at the proper crossing and then walk back up on the opposite side to the shop. I soon realised that they were not bothering to walk down and back up and were just crossing the road right in the middle to get to the shop quickly. So far I have not had heart failure and this Ramadan I even let them go the few blocks to their Nan’s house to deliver food for iftar (meal to break fast).
Another example is Little Lady’s journey to school. Her school is in a neighbouring borough with a bus journey through a busy London main route. This meant we went from dropping her and collecting her from the school gates of her primary school, which is eight minutes walk away, to her taking a bus journey of about 20 minutes alone. I remember when I used to commute early in the morning and used to endure occasional obscene comments and stares from men at the bus stop. This only added to my worry, so in the end we decided to drop her at the bus stop further from home and let her get the bus that stops right outside her school. I had a good week or two of stress and clock-watching until I got used to her coming home herself. This doesn’t mean that I don’t worry, she has told me about occasions when she has seem people looking at pornography on their phones in the morning, or the time a drunk man viewing pornography tried to grab one of her classmates. I used to take the same bus route to university and remember some of the unhinged people I sometimes came across, including one crazy old lady who started screaming “Coolie b***h!!” at me again and again and scared me enough to get off the bus way before my stop. Alhamdulillah Little Lady is a fierce and resilient girl and she comes home with a group of other girls from her class, but my worry isn’t completely irrational I don’t think.
A different area has been letting them go to friends or play outside by themselves. This is more around providing an appropriate environment than trying to hide them away or wrap them with cotton wool. Some of their school friends are Muslim, but not practising, so they have Bollywood films, music and non-stop computer games and unsupervised internet access at home. I am wary that they are being exposed to things and potentially thinking these are normal and we are not normal for avoiding them, after all their friends are Muslim too. So I have compromised by letting them go a few times and asking them not to miss their prayers. As Little Lady now goes to Islamic school, her friends come from environments more like ours and I am more comfortable with her seeing her friends at their homes if she wants to, but at 12 still think she is too young to be hanging out at the mall with her friends alone as she wants to.
One area which has been very trial and error with us is computer use and internet access. I have been quite strict with how much time they are allowed to use the computer and what they can access. I am starting to re-think if a different approach would be better. Once Little Man starts playing games, nothing will stop him, no-one else gets a turn and he starts to get very frustrated. The more I tried to manage their internet use, the more I felt like they were trying to sneak round me and not be entirely honest. I feel that perhaps my strategy of trying to strictly control their usage has led to these behaviours. A good friend offered an alternative way of approaching this. In her home there is a shared computer and everyone has the password, as long as they use responsibly, they are not too closely controlled or monitored. This has encouraged them to use the computer and gadgets in the house more sensibly and in effect they are self-managing their use. I am inclined to change my approach on this one and try giving them a little more independence and increase this if they show they are sensible in how much time they spend and doing what online.
So I am letting go of my children in small steps that we can both manage, perhaps, me more than them. I have tried to lay the foundations by including them in our decision making as a family (i.e. what shall we do this weekend?) and where I have not given permission for something by explaining why (do you think I would be a good parent if I let you spend hours playing computer games when you still have to do your homework?). As they grow older I find myself growing more confident in their ability to navigate the world for themselves and it is helping me to become a little more confident in granting them more independence.
A good reference marker for me remains a very sweet-natured friends of mine from university who has since passed away. I remember how strict my parents were and how scared I always was of getting home late, staying out in the evening even for work or studies or being seen so much as talking with a guy. This lovely friend of mine could go out in the evenings, see friends for dinners and talk to boys. I felt as if she had so much freedom, yet she was the first of us to wear hijab and went to the masjid every week almost. Her parents trusted her deeply and she was clear that she would never do anything that would hurt them. They would let her go out and then drop her off or collect her to reassure themselves she was safe and to make her feel as if her family was available should she need them. The relationship between them was loving without being stifling. I hope I can find the right balance with my children also insh’Allah.
I’m curious – what age did sisters start leaving kids at home alone? What age could they go to the shops or friends by themselves? Do you have an approach to internet access and time spent online that you feel is fair or has been successful in getting your children to spend their time sensibly?