My son is almost thirteen. He is old enough to spend much of the day by himself, but I’m still not entirely comfortable letting him while away whole days alone at home, mostly because he will sit on his laptop all day playing Minecraft. So I bring him with me to my office downtown, where he sits on his laptop all day playing Minecraft. Well, not entirely – I insist that he venture out alone to get his lunch, and if he wants breakfast, he has to go out for that too.  Every desire is a hook to teach him how to navigate the city on his own. Want a soft pretzel? Here’s how you get there, call the office number if you get lost. The comic book store? Two blocks away, have at it.

My son is a creature of habit, somewhat like me, so he’s become a regular at several downtown establishments this summer. The ladies at the doughnut shop downstairs ask about him on the days he’s not with me, and on the days he is here, he often seems to come back with one more doughnut than he had the money for. He’s a generous tipper, so they just drop an extra in his bag. For lunch, he’s gotten to know the guys at the Italian restaurant down the way, because he goes there every single day for pizza. When I went in with him today, they had his order memorized. Three weeks ago when he wanted to prank me, they gave him four extra pizza boxes so he could take a selfie with them and convince me he’d used my credit card to charge four pizzas.

At the end of the day when we walk to the parking garage, the dude who sits in the alley every day drinking is lit, so he’s yelling obscenities and jokes at no one and everyone.

“I’m kinda gonna miss him,” Sean said yesterday as we trudged up the ramp toward the car. One time this summer he almost bought a whole pizza for a guy panhandling outside the Italian place, but the guys who work there talked him out of it. I don’t mind his impulse to help, but it’s easy to be a savior with mom’s money. So I make him use his own.  So far he has good instincts.

This is the world. And downtown Indy offers many more opportunities for him to stretch his wings than the suburbs do. It’s a more navigable place than the chopped up, car-bound suburbs with no places left to roam. I tend to feel more anxious about Sean’s life when I feel like he’s too sheltered. Teaching him to navigate the city on his own lowers my anxiety level instead of raising it. I’m always pleasantly surprised at his competence and his empathy. It’s a good reminder to me, and a good lesson to him. I’m also happy to see that community still exists, from the respectful panhandlers and street performers, to the guys at the Italian place who offer him guidance when he needs it.

My dad was able to cross the entire city by himself using public transportation when he was several years younger than Sean. That was in the mid-1940’s, and there was a war on. Since then, this city has gotten a lot bigger, and public transportation a lot smaller. But I don’t believe the world has gone to hell. I just think it’s changed, and has become less navigable for the young in some ways, and more in others.  I do think we need to stop insulating kids from any and all risk. Contrary to what most people think, the world has actually gotten safer since I was a kid, not more dangerous.

Last day of pizza.
Last day of pizza.

Tomorrow he goes back to seventh grade. The larger world intrudes more into school with every grade. I wonder whether I could have encouraged him to walk farther, experience more, take more risks. I don’t know.

Last night he asked if he could Skype with some friends from his Minecraft server. I asked how old they were. He knew exactly where I was going. “Eleven and thirteen, mom. They’re not 50-year old pedophiles waiting to give me candy in a van.”

I make a little check mark in my head.  It’s begun, the tension between my need to protect him and his need to get into the outside world. But I’m strangely encouraged by his smartass response, because it means he knows the issues. I want him to face the world without fear, but with good judgement.

I also want him to pick up his socks.  Maybe that’s for next summer.

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7 thoughts on “Learning the city

  1. Nice take on an eternal conundrum: how to let go just enough. My boys grew up in a relatively small city, with the Lake Superior shore for a playground. After he left home, my younger son told me about the time he and a friend almost bought it while rock-climbingon the shoreline. I imagine there are a whole lot of other things they did that I’d rather not know–but none of it truly stupid or illegal.

    1. I regret that kids have so many fewer opportunities to range and take risk like that than they did when I was a kid. I think that’s how you learn the limits! What a lovely place to grow up that must have been. We are stuck in the suburbs at present, so the city serves as wilderness. 🙂

  2. Have you noticed the world is reluctant to give us as parents the freedom our own parents had in deciding when/how we should venture forth with independence? This week my 17.99-year-old son, him with a licence in his pocket and a car in the driveway, came down with a sinus infection. I called the clinic to make an appointment for this with his doctor and mentioned that he would be driving himself, but I’d be available by phone if necessary. Oh my god. No. Absolutely not. PARENTS MUST ACCOMPANY CHILDREN. I remember walking up the street to my pediatrician’s office after school on the rare occasions it was necessary after my mom returned to work. Those days are gone. I’m glad you’re proactively looking for opportunities for your son because you’re right. It’s far too easy for them to just fall into the world of Minecraft and wile away their lives. (KL)

    1. I do notice. I read a lot of Lenore Skenazy. There was a really good article on Vox about where this insane helicopter parenting started. Of course, it was a trial lawyer. *facepalm* Are you kidding about your son’s doctor? That’s absurd. How is a kid supposed to grow the hell up if he’s not allowed the latitude to learn to deal with a sinus infection???

  3. Such a nice read, sounds like your son will do just fine : ) It’s great that you allow him such freedom to find places and go out on his own, even if he chooses to be a regular at certain spots. It sounds like the kid knows how to find his niche and his happiness already.

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