“If I get pregnant, we’re leaving the country,” I say to my partner.
He moved to the U.S. from Finland 30 years ago and champions his adopted homeland. He tried to move back once but found his first home too small, too provincial for his Americanized sensibilities. “I love it here,” he says. “In the U.S., you can be whoever and whatever you want.”
Except the kind of parent I want to be.
He and I are travelers, sailors and educators. Before we were a couple, we worked together in the South Pacific. Large groups of adults gathered in the shade at the far end of the beach while their kids swam fearlessly with baby blacktip sharks. When a toddler ran down the dock at full speed with no life jacket, no one lunged for him. The only head turning was mine. Several times, he ran, stopped at the edge, then turned back. He was testing his own limits. “That’s how I want to raise my kids,” I said to the man who is now my partner, not knowing that someday we might make such decisions together.
But in the U.S., raising kids that way does more than raise eyebrows. It can land you in court. Most parents have heard the story of the couple charged with neglect after allowing their 10- and 6-year-old to walk home from the park alone, and the Tennessee mom facing the same accusations after making her children walk 3 1/2 miles to school while she drove slowly ahead — a punishment for missing the bus. And they’re far from the only parents who have dared to let kids out of arm’s reach and have been criminally charged as a result.
The kids and babysitters make news, too: a (Finnish-made) ax confiscated by police from a fort-building Illinois teen, and a nanny harangued by an onlooker and an officer after she left her three charges in the car (windows cracked on a windy, mild day) while she paid for gas. These are the stories that haunt me.
I was 6 years old when Adam Walsh was murdered. I remember the news coverage, John Walsh’s grief feeding my father’s fear. From then on, my dad stood at the end of the driveway, keeping vigilant watch. My brother and I looked forward to weekdays, when he worked and my mother watched only from windows. “Adam Walsh ruined my childhood,” I’d joke, before I realized I was far from alone. Many in my generation probably internalized their parents’ responses to the gruesome details of Walsh’s death and subsequent milk-carton kids. They grew up to hover over their own children as a result, helicopters powered by fear.
If I’m going to make the sacrifices necessary to be a parent, I want to do what I believe is best for my child, and I want to enjoy it. I have friends who suggest I should go along to get along. What’s the big deal? What they don’t understand is that going along with these parenting restrictions would challenge my value system in the same way that bringing their child to church — or not — might challenge theirs. In the land of the free, aren’t we supposed to be able to structure our families around the values we hold dear? For me, one of those values is independence and another is self-sufficiency. I value them so much that I’d rather not have children than raise them in a culture that so clearly misinterprets their abilities.
One of my favorite stories to tell older children is that of Caroline Izquierdo who, in 2004, spent several months among the Matsigenka tribe on the Peruvian Amazon. Izquierdo accompanied a group on a weeklong expedition to gather leaves along the river. A girl, Yanira, asked if she could also accompany them because she’d never been away from her village. Without prompting, she defined her own role, provisioning food from the river, preparing meals, cleaning the sleeping mats and stacking the collected leaves. What was so remarkable about this? The girl was 6.
Clearly, children are capable of more than we give them credit for.
In my favorite picture of my partner, he’s also 6 and wielding a machete. He works alongside his grandfather, and the field behind them is burning. Most parents wouldn’t let their 6-year-old near a machete, let alone a field aflame, but he appreciated the responsibility. I offer to move to Finland, to raise our hypothetical children in a language I cannot hope to pronounce. I cite their educational system, the free time and freedoms kids have to test their own limits. He says Finland is too cold and shows me Finnish YouTube videos of teen girls riding in hobbyhorse competitions, as if to show me what they do with all that free time.
Since we can’t agree on which country to call home, we’ve bought a boat. Since we’re sailors and travelers anyway, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine taking a child along with us. We’re almost a year into refurbishing, and when she’s ready, we’ll sail to the South Pacific.
If we do have a child, we’ll teach our 6-year-old to climb in the rigging, to use his rig knife safely, to clip in on deck, to trust herself to hold course, to navigate and to test his own limits. Perhaps we’ll settle on a spit of land and she’ll grow up an island kid, swimming with sharks. Or perhaps, when he’s old enough, or when the pendulum swings back and the helicopters no longer hover, we’ll come home again.
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