The day before I gave him independence, my son and I took the bus and the subway together. I paid for the tickets, guided him along the route and pointed out the landmarks along the way. With mom at the helm, it seemed no big deal to my 13-year-old. Until the next day, when he ventured out alone for the first time on public transit.
Fare in hand, he was apprehensive about commuting to his Jewish high school on his own, even with a brand new cellphone stashed in his pocket, our ridiculously inadequate armour against potential child abductors.
On the way home that afternoon, he called, panic in his voice. “I think I’m on the wrong bus!” he said, reciting unfamiliar intersections as evidence. “Can you come and get me?”
My first inclination was to jump in the car and chase down that bus, rescuing my boykie and resolving his dilemma in a heartbeat. But that would teach him nothing about independence and problem solving strategies, which was my goal to begin with. So instead of starting my ignition, I counselled him to ask the bus driver where to catch a bus in the right direction so that he could make his way home on his own.
He came back an hour later, with frustrated tears in his eyes. “I’m never taking public transit again!” he declared.
“Oh yes, you are,” I countered.
And the very next day, he was back at the bus stop. This time, though, there was no getting lost. He knew which bus not to take, was more aware of the landmarks en route and had greater confidence to ask directions and advice from bus drivers and other commuters.
When I told my friends about his independent forays, they were shocked. “He’s too young,” they warned, adding their own teens were “definitely not ready” to take public transit alone. “What if something happened to him on the way?”
Of course, the vagaries of that “something” worried me. We’ve all read stories about kidnappings, felt the heartache of parents who’ve lost children to violent accidents. But there comes a point where we have to still those fears and help our kids muster the courage to venture out alone. Without giving them independence, how do you teach kids to be independent and to handle the various situations life will inevitably throw at them? It’s not something they can learn holding a parent’s hand.
Sooner is better for such learning, I argued. Which is why my son’s Independence Day came at age 13.
Today, he’s a seasoned transit traveller who knows he should always carry money or cards in his wallet, can judge for himself the calibre of his fellow travellers and relies on his inner voice to guide him. He’s learning street smarts, crucial life skills that will keep him safe in the years to come. And blissfully, he is no longer entirely reliant on his parents when he needs a ride. Often, in fact, he voluntarily opts for public transit instead of a ride with mom or dad.
Some of those once-shocked friends have come around, and their kids are using public transit too, these days. As they navigate their way safely around the city, our collective fear levels subside somewhat. This is suburbia, after all, not a war zone, and the odds of something terrible happening are quite miniscule at the end of the day.
I believe one of the most precious gifts we can give our children is the ability to think on their feet and make decisions for themselves. At what age should that begin? That’s the million-dollar question. My twins are 11. Is that too young? I suspect their Independence Days are looming.