Parenting Milestone: An independent child is a safer child

Milestones come in all shapes and sizes, and we had another one this past Sunday. I sent my six year old daughter Ayelet into the women’s locker room to change by herself. This may not seem like much, but to me it represents an important step in keeping her safe in the world.

Kids over five years of age are forbidden to enter the locker room of the opposite gender

Kids over five years of age are forbidden to enter the locker room of the opposite gender

There are a lot of things I don’t worry about for my kids. I don’t worry about them getting hit by lightning, and I don’t worry about them contracting anthrax. While these things do happen, they are so rare and there is so little I can do to protect them that I don’t need to worry.

There are other things I don’t worry about. I don’t worry about them getting abducted, and I don’t worry about them choking while my back is turned. Child abductions by total strangers are rarer than people getting hit by lightning. My kids know how to chew, and the fact of the matter is that I don’t know the Heimlich maneuver, so watching them all the time won’t make them safer.

So what do I worry about? I worry that at some point my kid will be alone and will do something foolish. That they will get lost and not know what to do. That they will run across a street and headlong into a car. That they will jump into a pool and drown.

The best way I know to deal with this fear is to teach my kids to be independent. At some point, inevitably, they will find themselves alone. We will get accidentally separated. There will be a miscommunication in a pickup schedule and they will find themselves the last kid waiting to go home. They will be playing in the basement and somehow manage to climb up and reach my toolset.

The best way I can think of to protect them in these situations is to “world-proof” them. Prepare them to make independent decisions, think for themselves, and show good judgement. They can solve most problems if they have a good head on their shoulders and know when to ask for help.

And this brings me to the locker room at swimming lessons.

My wife had a morning meeting, so I had both kids on my own. My son can go with me into the men’s locker room, but my daughter is now 6 and is too old . Kids over five years of age are forbidden to enter the locker room of the opposite gender. Recognizing that many kids will not be able to navigate the locker room on their own, the pool helpfully refers parents to the “family changing room”, a small room with four lockers, a shower, and a toilet. We stopped in to find about a dozen parents and children trying to crowd in there. It was hopeless.

I saw this as an opportunity.  Ayelet had been in the women’s locker room before, and she knew how to dress herself. Once her lesson was complete, I said to her, “Ayelet, now that you are six, I think you can go get dressed on your own in the women’s locker room.”

She was nervous at first, but I assured her she would be fine. I told her I would wait by the pool entrance door, and she should change and then come back out and meet me.

While I had every confidence in her ability to do this, it is a little complicated. I’ve never seen the women’s locker room, but if it is anything like the men’s, it is a warren of different sub-rooms. One door leads to the bathrooms, another to the showers, another back to the pool area, and another to the gym. If she went out the wrong door, she wouldn’t be able to get back in and would find herself in a different part of the building.

And so I followed up with the most important piece of advice. I said, “If you need help or get confused or aren’t sure which way to go, ask somebody for help.”

Most people are nice, kind, caring, and only too happy to help. I hate to think of the message that parents send when they discourage their kids from talking to strangers for fear of abduction. This is incredibly unlikely. I want my kinds to understand that when they need help, they should not be afraid to ask for it. It’s much safer than trying to do everything on their own.

And so my daughter trotted into the locker room and I wanted by the door. And waited… and waited… and waited.

I figured it shouldn’t take her more than five minutes to change, but she also had to go to the bathroom. I was confident Ayelet knew what to do, but was I making her do something she wasn’t ready for?

On the other side of the pool area I saw a friend of ours waiting with her daughter for their swimming lesson to start.  I figured that if she went past 15 minutes, I would go over and ask her to check on Ayelet. At 12 minutes, our friend walked over on her own volition with her daughter, who needed to go the bathroom.

She quickly read the anxious look on my face and asked, “Would you like me to go and check on Ayelet?”

With relief I said, “Yes, that would be great!”

They walked into the locker room, and less than 10 seconds later, Ayelet walked out.

“Was everything okay?” I asked her.

“Yes!” she said. “I was just finishing putting on my shoes.”

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