Mama, please let me go out alone

The chatter dies off as I turn into the parking lot under our block. His right hand darts to the seat belt fastener, his left hand rests on the door lever and his face is taut with concentration.

The minute I turn off the ignition, pop goes his belt buckle. In a flash, my son is out of the door, swinging his school bag over one shoulder.

"See you upstairs," he tosses over the other and races off.

For the past two weeks, this daily dash home has been an after-school game. At least, I thought it was a game initially. The first time he took off before I'd even got out of the car, I gave chase, caught up with him at the elevator and laughed. He, however, didn't find it funny at all.

"I want to go up by myself," he protested, annoyed, then insisted that I wait for the next available elevator.

So I did, and added this to the fast growing list of things that my seven-year-old now does on his own: showering, ordering food when we dine out and visiting a men's loo without Crazy Mum planting herself outside and shouting every five seconds, "Are you done? Wash your hands with soap!"

To him, the mad sprint is not a game but yet another thrilling exercise in independence. For those precious seconds while he is in the lift, unencumbered by adult chaperones, he can pretend he's all grown up.

The toddler who had just been clamouring to feed and dress himself is now yearning, more than anything else, for physical freedom.

He longs to go places on his own: his best friend's home, buy bread from the vending machine downstairs or collect his younger sister when the school bus drops her off at the foot of our block. Somewhere, anywhere.

Sadly, the solo elevator ride is probably as close as it gets for now as we deem him still too young to venture out on his own.

In particular, he has been begging me to let him loose at the playground downstairs alone and trust him to make his own way home at the agreed time.

I am ready to give it a shot but his father thinks otherwise. "Maybe next year," he says.

Most of the time, I veto my son's bids for independence because I'm paranoid that he may be abducted, bullied or violated in some way away from my watchful eye.

My husband's reasons are different though. While I don't trust the big, bad world, it is my son he has doubts about.

Mainly, he is worried that our boy may get so caught up with something - a cat, an insect or a ball gone astray, for instance - that he will pay no heed to safety.

Most would agree that good parenting is essentially about teaching your kids well enough so that they can eventually manage fine without you and, hopefully, be of service to others.

What is less clear-cut in this age of helicopter parenting, however, is when to cut which of the tangle of apron strings.

In Japan, it is reportedly common for kids as young as seven to take the train on their own.

But when American columnist Lenore Skenazy wrote in 2008 about how she let her then nine-year-old son take the New York subway on his own, it made headlines as far as Malta and stirred up a fierce debate.

Not only do some attempt to shovel away all obstacles in their kids' path, as Clara Chow wrote in this space last week of "snow-plough" parents, but they also think keeping them under surveillance 24/7 may not be a bad idea in the name of safety.

So even as Skenazy's supporters recalled fondly their own guardian-free trips on the subway, others lambasted her for being a neglectful mother guilty of child abuse.

The media storm led her to set up a blog called Free Range Kids, where she continues to share stories of how parents have - or have not - removed the leashes to let their children attempt various things on their own.

Even in the safe haven that is Singapore, I doubt I'd let my son fly solo on public transport till he's at least 10 - my husband thinks 12 or 13 is a better bet - but I admire Skenazy's seemingly bold move.

Mostly, I envy her ability to tame the fear monster that dwells in every parent and not let her anxieties warp the way she brings up her kids.

After all, my friends and I began zipping around on buses on our own from age nine in those pre-cellphone days. Even then, some would consider us late developers.

"The problem with this everything-is- dangerous outlook is that over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself," Skenazy wrote in her column that first ran in The New York Sun.

"A child who thinks he can't do anything on his own eventually can't."

As my son continues to push and challenge the limits of freedom every day, we carefully redraw the boundaries, based largely on how he handles himself each time the reins slacken.

When he was four or five, for instance, we insisted that he keep us in his sight, and vice versa, whenever he wanted to wander off while we were out.

Then, we let him stay in one section of a store, say the toy department, while we browsed in other parts of the store.

These days, I have no qualms about leaving him alone in a bookshop or toy store while I run errands in the vicinity, albeit with the same strict instructions for him to stay put, behave himself and scream for help if need be.

Maybe I'd be ready to let him whizz about unsupervised on the MRT sooner than I thought. But for now, I'm adopting the mantra "letting go but staying close".

hunching@sph.com.sg

At what age did or would you let your kids venture out on their own? E-mail stlife@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Nov 2, 2014.
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