Rescuing My Kids’ Childhood From My Fear

My eleven year-old carries a pocket knife.

He cooks his own eggs. He rides a bike without a helmet. He hangs out on the front porch alone and digs through his dad’s woodworking tools without supervision.

After 11 years of parenting and four kids, I have never “baby-proofed” my home. No outlet covers, no table corner pads, no baby gates. No hiding the kitchen knives. No carrying hand sanitizer on my keychain.

We are a bumps and bruises, trial and error kind of family.

This sometimes gives people the impression that my husband and I are careless with our children or negligent. But the truth is that I welcome a healthy dose of vulnerability to danger in my home because I need to, not because I want to. In fact, I want none of this.

Sometimes it sounds like a dream to have quiet, calm, safe children who think nothing of setting fires in the backyard or being left home alone before they’re 16.

But “safe” is not what most children are. Nor what they should be.

Left to their own devices, children are small madmen, conjuring experiments and fairytales while dressed in their father’s work coat. They are con-artists. They are magicians. They are storytellers and thieves and tightrope walkers. They dream big and believe everything and sometimes really do think they could fly if they tried.

And the more alive they are in their child-ness, the more vulnerable to danger they become and the more their safety falls outside my control.

I want control.
I want power.

So none of this “free range kids” stuff feels good to me, at least not at first, because it is a daily reminder of the frailty of life and the powerlesness of parenting.

It doesn’t matter how smart and competent my kid is or how well my toddler can climb the stairs. The truth is: I cannot protect them from all the dangers of the world. I obviously know this. But every time they make a small mistake that leads to a small consequence–they cut their finger, they trip running down the sidewalk, etc.–it’s like a reminder that they may one day make a big mistake with a big consequence. And then the reality hits me that, one day, they might get hurt. Hurt bad. Or hurt someone else. (Or both.)

The anxiety can sometimes feel crippling.

I worry for my kids all the time. I worry about both rational and irrational things. I worry about them being bit by angry dogs, being abused by a friend, or getting stuck on an elevator alone.

House fires, flash floods, bee stings, hiking accidents, infectious diseases, accidental poisoning. I worry about all of it.

“Then put a lock on the medicine cabinet, you idiot!”

Right?
Maybe. But probably not.

(Don’t take it personally; It’s okay if you lock your medicine cabinet.)

The lengths to which we’ll go to protect our children vary at different times, at different ages, and with different kids. Hard and fast rules don’t apply to most of this stuff. Every parent has to exercise wisdom and weigh which risks are work the benefits of taking the risk and which are not.

But, trying to ensure the absolute safety of your child with more elbow pads or a larger carseat is an exercise in futility if you haven’t first done the hard work of accepting that your children live in a world that simply not safe.

Safety–as least so far as it depends on you–is a bit of an illusion. You can wash your kids’ hands a million times and they’ll still end up sick eventually.

We often exact our control over our children in immediate ways as a way of coping with our fears about all of the things that are possible and yet completely outside our control–things like being in the wrong place at the wrong time, needing the one thing missing from the first aid kit, a freak accident, or a random act of violence.

But, the irony of making our kids “safe” and under our control is that, in these kinds of unforeseen and scary scenarios, our children’s best chance of overcoming is to conjure that mad scientist to life. (The mad scientist that some of us killed long ago with our “Be careful!” and “Slow down!” and “Stop taking my garlic powder into the backyard!”)

Our kids need to have a survival instinct as they grow. They need to be able to think on their feet, to come up with creative solutions, and to be confident enough to actually try them. Most kids start with those gifts. We need to make sure they keep and develop them.

How do we do this?

Well, it has less to do with how long their carseat faces backwards and more to do with our posture toward them and their desire to exercise their freedom.

It means training ourselves to replace the words “be careful” with “think about what might happen if you do that.”

It means no longer insisting on doing for them the things they are capable of doing themselves, whether it’s packing their lunch or putting on their mittens or leading the way to the library.

It means no longer interpreting their confidence and independence as an assault on my authority.

It means cultivating strength into benevolent leadership, pride into confidence, and strong-will into tenacity.

It means teaching them the difference between being willing to take a risk and being reckless.

It means letting them experience the power of cause and effect.

It means giving them many opportunities to solve a problem on their own.

The specifics of how you do this with your kids will look different from mine because every kid is different. (And their natural ability to navigate danger will be different, too.)

Just start somewhere and let it grow from the ground up.

What’s the pay off? Well, they grow up. And it’s awesome.

Case in point:

Last Summer, when we were at the pool, my son took my keys and ran home to grab something we’d forgotten.

Meaning: I didn’t need to pack up the four kids and all of our crap and walk back home.

Often, I’ll send my kids down the road for a loaf of bread from the bakery.

Meaning: It doesn’t ruin soup night anymore if I forget the milk.

Lately, my daughter (who is 8), has been asking if she can go spend time at the coffeeshop alone. (“When you’re ten,” I told her. And I meant it.)

Meaning: My daughter feels confident and brave and is excited to exercise those gifts.

When my kids are in a really lousy mood, I send the three oldest for a run around the block.

Meaning: They get exercise and I don’t have to deal with them when they’re acting like monsters.

Recently, I was neck deep into cooking dinner when I realized I didn’t have any milk for the recipe. So, I gave my kids $5 (which I borrowed from my son who always has more cash than me because he’s like that) and sent them down the road for a carton of milk. They were $.50 short (organic milk, dang), so my son left his sister there with the milk and he hightailed it home for the two quarters he needed.

They both returned a few minutes later.

And it felt totally normal.

This freedom should be normal for kids. I know it has been a real game-changer for us.

And, suddenly, this free-range kid thing starts to make a lot more sense.

 

But Where Do You Park Your Car?

The three most frequent questions I’m asked by people (parents, specifically) who are curious about living downtown are:

“Where do you buy groceries?”

“Where do your kids attend school?”

“Where do you park your car?”

Of these three, the first two are easily reconcilable. I have good answers for both. But the third question kills the conversation pretty quickly as soon as I answer, “Well, I can usually find a spot within a few blocks.”

The parking situation in my neighborhood has become more and more of a headache in the past two years as A) new businesses have opened and non-residents have decided that OTR is the “place to be” and B) as the City instated new parking restrictions including more metered spaces, higher parking rates, extended hours of enforcement, and started actually enforcing current laws. Together, these have all have forced residents to compete for the few free spaces available. Whereas, five years ago, I could find a parking space on my own street just about any time of the day (except Final Friday), I now sometimes circle for 20 minutes if I want a nearby space and often park 3-4 blocks away. (More on why that’s a problem in a minute.)

Today, we are on the brink of a City Council decision about the fate of parking in OTR and the (likely) institution of a permit parking program that–in my opinion–is too little, too late.

But, back to the issue at hand.
For the average family, the parking issue is one of the main factors in deciding whether or not a place is truly livable, meaning a place that goes from pie-in-the-sky, “I’d love to live there someday, in another life” to an actual, potential place they can thrive as a family. 

I’ve heard many Cincinnati residents (including the Mayor himself, City Council members, and other OTR residents) write-off the parking issue with a naive and condescending “If you don’t want to pay for parking, just get rid of your car. You’re the one who chose to live downtown.” And, sure, in a perfect world or in a world-class city, it would be that easy. Heck, even in Cincinnati, it is possible for many people. But we are still a long way from having an infrastructure that supports a completely car-free life. Especially for families (those of us with more than just ourselves and our own stuff to transport around town).

So, let me explain a few reasons why inconvenient parking kills the urban living dream for the average family.

The distance between your parking space and your front door seems quite a bit more significant when you’re responsible for unloading after a family-sized grocery trip or now have to carry the sleeping babies that fell asleep while you circled the block for twenty minutes.

You cannot leave things in your car when you live in the city. Or, at least you should not. This includes that stroller you’d rather not bring in and out of the house twice a day and the groceries you’d rather just leave for a few hours while you get the kids inside the house for their nap. There is no garage to keep your car/things safe. Leave it and you take the chance of coming back to a broken window and a lost stroller.

Good luck getting friends and family to come visit you at your downtown home when there is no place to park. Other families with kids don’t want to walk six blocks from the nearest parking garage just to visit you. And Grandma doesn’t want to, either. Before too long, Uncle Elmer out in the suburbs will start hosting Easter again because it is just so much easier for everyone. And what about your babysitters? You’ll have to pay them an extra $2 an hour just to pay for their parking.

– There are definitely some housing units available with off-street or designated parking spaces, but these are at a premium and the added cost of the parking space is prohibitive for many families. Most young families I know are sacrificing at least part of an income (if not a complete income) to care for their young children. Many of them live on a strict budget. The difference between a $150k and $350k home to them is like the distance between Earth and Jupiter.

– The cost of paying for a garage space is the same way. An extra $60-95 a month might not be a huge deal to a couple with two full-time jobs and no one to feed other than themselves and a pet cat, but it’s just another unnecessary expense that a working- or middle-class family doesn’t want to deal with.

Have you ever driven an SUV down a tiny cobblestone alleyway? In homes with off-street parking, a family-sized vehicle simply cannot fit. Take us for example: we have the potential for a parking pad in our backyard. But, with three kids and a mother in-law who doesn’t drive, we need a 6+ passenger vehicle. Big cars and small alleys aren’t exactly a good match. For us, parking in the backyard would be a headache every single time.

– With young children in the house, you cannot “just leave the house for a second” to walk down the street and feed the meter. This is why I’d rather circle the block for twenty minutes than park at a metered spot (and why extended meter hours stink). This goes for babysitters, too. If my babysitter arrives in the morning and has to park at a meter, she’ll need to leave my house every few hours to feed the meter and avoid a ticket. With older kids, this is not a big deal. They can be left alone for a few moments. But what do you do when there is a sleeping baby upstairs and the parking meeting around the corner is about to expire? Or when there are three kids who you have to pack up in jackets and shoes to take with you around the corner to pay that meter? It’s obviously not impossible. But it’s obnoxious.

“Just get rid of your car” doesn’t work when there are large grocery trips and grandparents to visit. It doesn’t help when you have a sick child and need to be able to speed to the doctor at any moment. It doesn’t do the job when you have two or three kids who need to be at two different places clear across town within moments of each other. Now, sure, this could be argued as a matter of lifestyle choices. The in-laws could move within walking distance. You could do all of your shopping in small trips around the neighborhood. You could buy a $3000 cargo bike to replace your car. But, like I said, above, our city is just not at a place yet where being completely car-free is a practical decision for most families. Until it is, let’s stop pulling the “Just get rid of your car” card on people who really would like to find a way to make it work for their family.

Okay, now let me be frank for a second. 

My husband and I knew what we were getting into when we moved here. We knew that parking could be difficult. And for the past seven years, we’ve dealt with it as one of a few nuisances among the many benefits of city living. We have also adapted our lifestyle to make it easier on ourselves and, at this point, can go quite a few days without actually needing to use our family vehicle. But I’ll admit that there are times when I’ve been so angry with how hard it is to find a decent parking space that I take those laps around the block red-faced and cursing under my breath so my kids can’t hear.

I don’t consider us your “average family.” Your average family may have never moved here in the first place. And they most certainly are not going to move to place that almost requires playing the parking game we have these days in OTR.

So why does it matter? Do we really want a bunch of average families moving to the urban core of our city. 

Yes, absolutely.

And if you want a city that the average family actually considers livable, you have to build your city with them in mind. Amenities like grocery stores and affordable restaurants are key; healthy and thriving schools are an absolute necessity. Add the availability of family-sized housing that is affordable and offers off-street or near (affordable) parking, and they’ll be moving in droves. Trust me.

For now and for our city, I’m feeling a little helpless at the moment. Not about the neighborhood, in general, but about its livability for families like mine. High-cost developments and inflated market-rate housing costs have already priced-out most of my peers. Neighborhood schools don’t seem to be improving. And this ridiculous parking situation may, quite honestly, be the nail in the proverbial coffin for most working- and middle-class families.

I know that, from an economic standpoint, parking in busy urban districts can seem to be the quickest way to make a buck. Sure: raise the rates, increase the hours, charge visitors a pretty penny to visit our booming downtown. But we need to remember that it’s a city’s residents and business owners, not its visitors, that keep it alive. What our Mayor and City Council are saying to us right now is, basically, they care far more about making some extra cash than they do about ensuring that the urban core remains a livable community.

And that’s an awful shame.

Hey, Cincinnati Families!

I’m looking for a few Cincinnati families to contribute to a blog series this summer called “Where We Play.”

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You’d be responsible for reviewing a Cincinnati-area park or playground and allowing me to post your review on the blog. I’ll give you a list of questions to answer. You’d also take a few photos to post with the review.

It would be credited to you as a “guest blogger” and I’ll gladly link to your blog, if you’d like.

Preference will be given to bloggers and playspaces near the city center, especially lesser-known and off-the-beaten-path spots. (Including Northern Kentucky.)

Email me if you’re interested and let me know where YOU play!

Choosing A Small Living Space

When considering housing options, one of the most common concerns among parents is space: physical space, square footage, acreage. For this reason alone, urban living is almost immediately crossed off the list of options. To move to the city may require sharing a building with neighbors, sharing bedrooms with siblings, or limiting outdoor space for play.

molinecourtMoline Court, Northside. photo credit

As the mother of a growing family, I understand this concern and I’m sympathetic. Our home has plenty of square footage for our family, but the space is not arranged very well. Currently, we only use two of our available bedrooms as sleeping spaces, which means that my two children share a room and Baby #3 (due in September) will bunk with us (as the other two have for their first few months) and then eventually with her brother and sister.

Three kids in one room.
In 21st Century middle-class America, that is simply absurd.

As our family grows, we get more and more questions about what we’re going to do with that new baby once she’s born. Reconfiguring our home to use 3 or more bedrooms will require a large financial investment and a lot of work (and time). For now, it’s not on the agenda. I like our current situation. And, apart from the logistics of different sleeping habits and bedtimes, it doesn’t bother me at all to have a bunch of young children sleeping in the same room. (Now, when they’re teenagers, this might be a bit trickier…)

Contrary to the popular belief of my peers, it’s not impossible for a large family to live comfortably in the city. It simply requires sacrifice, creativity, and wisdom about the best way to use a limited amount of space. Most urban families–those who live in the city by choice, not necessity–have reconciled their sacrifice of space for the sake of other benefits of life in the city. And, with a clever use of space (alongside purging unnecessary stuff and using good organizational skills), I think living in small space could actually be easier than a large sprawling home. (Imagine how much easier it would be to clean a house half the size!)

On a related note, I came across this article in Apartment Therapy last night. This woman only has two children, which is not really a large family, but she offers a good perspective on why choosing a smaller space is often not really a sacrifice, but is actually a good thing for family life.

What about you?
Have you considered down-sizing to a smaller space for the sake of a different way of life?
Do you already feel squeezed too tight?
Have you already given-up on small spaces?
For those living in small spaces, what lifestyle (and organizational) changes have you made to make it easier for living?

For some related stories (with great photos!) check out these other recent Apartment Therapy posts:

Emily’s Nursery Nook in the Bedroom
Something For Everyone
(a shared room for three boys)
Jack, Finn & Rowan’s “Undone” Room (another shared room)
Before & After: Closet Turned Nursery
A Small Space Nursery Triumph in Manhattan

And for general encouragement that small-space living can actually be great, check out these links:

Small House Bliss
Honey, I Shrunk The House
Tiny House Swoon