Smotherhood: This 6-Year-Old Runs A Little Too Freely

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Every time I turn around, there she is: the free-range kid. She’s a nice girl, a coltish 6-year-old with a cat’s curiosity and not an ounce of hesitation in her body. She has the confidence to let herself into our gated backyard and wander into our home, asking to use the bathroom or for some of the dinner we’re eating, even though she’s already eaten at home. Let’s call her Jayda.

Now, if Jayda were the girl next door, I probably wouldn’t mind her almost constant presence. But in fact she lives a few units over and up a level in our 100-plus townhouse development, and until recently I barely knew her. She appeared suddenly along with the first blooms of spring, relentless in her quest for a playmate.

My son, who is six months younger than Jayda, worships the ground she plays on. She is the tiny queen of the massive, treed courtyard at the core of our community – a courtyard that is kept private via high fences and locked gates, but that is directly accessible to half the homes in our complex and a mere turn of a key away for the rest: about 350 virtual strangers, in other words.

And yet Jayda has free reign. Her mom, saddled with a baby and an absentee husband, trudges downstairs every afternoon and lets Jayda into the courtyard to play with whomever or whatever she might come across. She can sometimes see her daughter from her third-floor patio, but often has no idea where she is for hours at a time. Jayda’s only real means to contact her mother is a doorbell she keeps in her pocket; when she rings it, her mom will meet her at the gate to take her home.

I have about a million concerns with this practice, the most obvious of which is for Jayda’s safety. Even discounting the most hideous of possible threats at human hands, she could simply have an accident or be stung by a bee or be taught to sniff glue by older kids or … the mind boggles. (I didn’t make up that last one, by the way; that actually happened in our complex a while back.)

My concerns lead me to keep a close eye on her when she’s around, so she ends up spending a lot of time playing with my kids. Because if she knocks and I send her away, I’m thinking, Whose house are you heading to next?

Which means I have to spend a lot of time explaining to my son and daughter (who’s three) why they can’t simply go running off out of sight for long stretches, or knock on strangers’ doors to see if a kid can come out to play, or go to bed after the sun has gone down. Worse, Jayda’s freedom inspires my husband, a highly suggestible man, to question whether we shouldn’t let our kids range that freely, too.

I suppose I could be accused by some of being a “helicopter mom,” but here’s the thing: Jayda’s mother is counting on that fact. She thanks me when I make Jayda call and tell her she’s with us, as though her daughter is some wayward teen who usually can’t be bothered to check in. She thanks me when I’ve supervised the kids’ outdoor play for hours at a time, as though I’ve alleviated her of a tremendous burden of anxiety … that she created. She’s a well educated, intelligent woman who appears in every other way to be a responsible, caring mother with genuine concern for her children’s physical and emotional well-being.

Am I insane to think she’s insane?

(Photo: Derrick Coetzee)