How to be an Anxious Parent

by Danielle Veith

I am an anxious parent. Or more accurately, I’m an anxious person who happens to also be a parent.

But does that mean that I parent my children anxiously? I try not to, but happen not to be perfect.

As a confessed anxious mother, I try hard not to pass along my anxiety to my kids. My own version of the American dream: I would love to help my kids become more resilient than I will ever be. In fact, I worry about it. Because worrying is what anxious people do.

Which brings me to the latest brew-ha-ha in the DC parenting world. Reportedly, Child Protective Services investigated local parents who let their two kids, six- and ten-years-old, walk alone on Georgia Avenue (an close-in-suburban version of a four lane highway).

Judging by my Facebook feed (as one does) most parents reacted with some combination of three things: 1. I might not let my kids do that, but I do let them: play outside alone/walk around our neighborhood/walk a few blocks to school/ other showing of parent street cred, 2. I respect other parents’ right to be the judge of what their kids can and cannot handle, and 3. There are some parents who have poor judgment and that’s why we have CPS and laws against leaving young kids alone.

Local laws dictate that kids must be eight-years-old to be left alone or 13 to be left responsible for younger children.

Maybe some kids are ready before then. Maybe some kids aren’t ready until later. The consensus seemed to say that six seems young, but ten is old enough for such an adventure.

But what about the ten-year-old who was left in charge of her younger brother?  Is ten too young to be left in charge of a younger sibling?

My opinion—not to be confused with the opinion I believe every other parent should have—is that ten is too young. For me. For my kids (who have years to go before ten, plenty of time to prove me wrong, as they so often do).

Maybe it's the news accounts of young children accidentally shooting a sibling that makes me nervous about children left alone. Maybe it’s "just" anxiety. Certainly, the publicity surrounding every Amber Alert makes the world feel more dangerous than it is.  

And there's this--it doesn't matter what statistics say, once you’ve been a though a rare, difficult experience (in my case a ruptured ectopic pregnancy), statistics seem to lose power. Things that don't happen often do still happen to someone.

Child abduction by strangers is rare, but no one can tell you it doesn’t happen. This is usually when someone interjects that riding in a car is more dangerous. I don’t find it reassuring that more kids die in car accidents. That just makes be double-check that my kids are properly buckled in safe seats.

My biggest fear for the six- and ten-year-olds walking along Georgia Ave isn’t child abduction, it’s how many times I’ve heard “pedestrian struck” in the traffic report. Six-year-olds aren’t developmentally ready to be afraid to die. They’re pretty sure it’s reversible. And ten-year-olds shouldn't be burdened with the parent-level stress of looking after a sibling in a potentially dangerous situation. What if the six-year old gets hit by a car?

Trusting your gut is a central tenant of good parenting. At some point, you have to decide to trust your kid out in the world. Trusting your gut and listening to your kid is how you figure out when the time is right. 

As an anxious person, I second-guess myself when I feel worried. I know that I have fear that is outsized. I try to ignore the wildness of a mind overrun by anxious imaginings.

But some amount of fear is healthy. I can’t just throw gut-instincts out the window. I need them. So I struggle with trusting myself. I worry (as anxious people do) that I won’t recognize danger because I’m too busy trying to suffocate my fear, telling myself it’s anxiety, not reality, and trying to override anxiety I can't temper.

I try to sort anxiety from healthy fear. I try to teach my children one and not the other. And then I worry that I will fail, that I will ruin them.

But honestly, I don’t think my kids will suffer tremendously if their mom needs them to wait just a bit longer to walk a highway alone. As I used to tell other moms when someone was worried their baby wasn’t sitting up fast enough or walking soon enough or potty training on schedule, "They aren’t going to go off to college... not knowing how to walk along the street alone."

Right now, my kids are 6 and 3, so they’re not going anywhere alone. Later, I hope I’ll know when they’re ready to be more independent. In the meantime, what’s the hurry? Why do we want our kids to grow up so quickly?

I think the conversation about free-range kids has many moving parts. You don't have to put your kid on the subway before you're ready. There are other ways to structure safe, healthy, age-appropriate risk-taking. For instance, start with this.

We don’t all have to let our children loose on the street just to prove we’re not failing on teaching them independence. There are so many other ways to fail our children. Enough to keep our supposedly bubble-wrapped kids busy for quite awhile.

A last thought for the cynics among us… Think it’s a coincidence that the queen bee of free-range kids weighed in on our tiny town brewhaha? With her piece in the Post, Lenore Shenazy  wasn’t just sharing her thoughts, she was promoting her new show. Starts tomorrow on Discovery (which happens to be based in the same small town as the kids who caused all the fuss). As a former publicist, I say, “Nice work!” As a mother I say, “Spare me.”