Our daughter (Boo, the middle one) has a friend who is half-American, half-Danish. Every summer, the friend goes to Denmark for a month, they pick up their new au pair, and head back to the US. Our girls are good friends. Best friends, crazy-good friends, who do everything together. The month of July, while her friend is gone, is kind of agony for Boo. Every year, Boo’s friend’s mom tries to make up for this month away by planning camp or some other activity for the girls to do together, which really never works out for us. They are gone for July, and August is kind of a family time for us. We go on vacation, we get ready for back to school, we lie around and complain about how humid it is. You know? So not really the time we want to ship our daughter off to camp.
This year, Boo’s friend’s mom came up with a new idea — suggested, no doubt, by the girls. Boo could come to Denmark too! Maybe not for a month, but for a week! Which would involve Boo flying to Denmark alone. Of course, the friend’s mom said YES! So it was up to us. Now, let’s set aside the fact that the friend’s mom said yes before running it by us, thereby guaranteeing that we would be The Most Hated Parents if we were to say no, which, of course, made us want to say no. Our Boo is, shall we say, not the most responsible of children. She is our Pokey Puppy, the one who can’t get herself ready for school without reminders, who still, even with reminders, sometimes does not brush her hair. She gets distracted playing with the dog, or her brother, or making faces at herself in the mirror while singing. Often, when we leave the house, we say “Boo. Got your backpack? Your lunch? Your head?” “Yes, yes yes!” she answers. I drop them off at school, and she rushes out to meet her friend. Then I get to the train station, and see the lunchbox sitting on the backseat. Honestly, I am sometimes shocked I have not seen the head sitting back there.
She had raised this before, wanting to go to Denmark. No, Boo, we had said. You’re not ready. You’re too young to fly, and go through customs, alone. We like the idea, but you’re just not ready yet. Plus, we have never been to Denmark. We don’t know what it’s like, or what to expect. And besides, you haven’t been invited.
Well, then she was invited. The conversation was the same. She was disappointed, but not surprised. No, Boo. You’re too young, you’re not ready. And honestly? She is. It makes us totally uncomfortable to think of her leaving her passport or Deno (her beloved stuffed dog, pronounced like “Dino” the dog from the Flintstones, but not spelled the same, because Deno is a girl) or her head, for heaven’s sake, sitting on the airplane as she bops off, singing Let It Go to herself and waving at the pilot.
That day, I read the Atlantic article about the Overprotected Kid, and nodded along. Of course, when I was a kid, our neighbors had a treehouse where no grownups were allowed, and where we once started a fire in an old kitchen pot. We played Ghost in the Graveyard and Flashlight Tag in the backyard of one house while our parents all drank margaritas on the deck of another. I walked to and from school alone from first grade on. I had that childhood, the free, liberating, unsupervised one that no one now has. I loved it. And I chafe at the fact that our kids are not allowed to run during recess (this is real), and aren’t permitted by the school to walk home without an adult until they are in fifth grade. My wife’s upbringing was similar, and involved mud-ball fights against neighborhood kids, spy clubs and long days at the community pool, where there were parents somewhere, just not anywhere nearby. It also involved a trip to Minnesota and a trip cross-country, in middle school and early high school, without parents. I mentioned the article at dinner, and showed the kids the pictures of the “dangerous” playground it featured. They agreed it looked awesome. Then we sent them off to change into their pajamas.
And my wife and I looked at each other, and knew in our gut that saying “No” was the wrong decision. Maybe Boo and her best friend wouldn’t be best friends next year, and she wouldn’t be invited to Denmark when she was “ready.” Maybe it wasn’t Boo that wasn’t ready at all — maybe it was us. One of our principle rules of parenting comes from Dirty Dancing — when you’re wrong, you say you’re wrong. So when Boo came back to the kitchen after changing into her pajamas, we said we were wrong. It was the wrong decision to say No to Denmark. We told her the reasons why we made the decision we had, and why we had reconsidered. The way she said “Thank you!” and the hugs that followed, I will never forget. She later told us she couldn’t sleep that night because she was shaking with happiness.
I’m still not totally comfortable with the thought of her flying off to a country we have never visited, without her parents, to spend a week doing things we can’t even imagine. But it’s really not about what makes me comfortable. It’s about what’s best for our daughter. And what’s best for her is to fly, totally supervised by trained, competent airline personnel, to visit her friend. To have a million experiences she will never get any other way, and will probably never have again. To have the chance to grow into it. To make mistakes, and learn from them. To feel the fear and the freedom of doing something totally new, all on her own.
Maybe she will leave something important on the plane. Maybe she won’t. But either way, that won’t be what she remembers. She will remember visiting her friend, and she will remember that we trusted her.
And just when I have those doubts, that maybe she’s not ready, she comes in and tells me new Danish words that she learned from watching YouTube videos. She can say “thank you,” and “please,” and “I like to read.” It is already an unforgettable experience for her.
(The picture of the young Hermione Granger look-alike with her friend is from the SAS website – the airline that will be carrying our daughter off to foreign lands we have never visited)