When a child first steps out, anxiety always follows

DILEMMAS
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Indy Lifestyle Online
All loving mums worry themselves sick when their children take their first independent steps. They worry about accidents, they worry about murder, and, like Stephanie, they worry about being over-protective and they worry about being under-protective.

Under-protectiveness comes with ignorance or lack of love. No chance of this with Stephanie. Over-protectiveness? Like the reader who was so panic-stricken when her 10-year-old son had to visit a public Gents that she waited outside, ears a-quiver, having given the boy a loud whistle to blow in case of being pounced on by a predatory trouserless maniac.

How can Stephanie find a balance? First she must consider the facts, given that, to acquire the confidence that will pervade all areas of his life, her son has to start becoming independent.

What's the worst that could happen? Road-safety lessons are essential to avoid traffic accidents, but as for gangs of paedophiles and incidents of abuse and assault from strangers, they only receive publicity because they're so rare. Creeps and maniacs usually do their lurking among family or friends. (The worst sexual pawings I received as a child came from the father of a schoolfriend who groped his daughters' little friends as he escorted them home after tea - purportedly to protect them from dirty old men).

She should then understand why she and her husband disagree. Research shows that in most families a mother's role is to provide a secure home for the children; a father's role is to show them how to leave it. However much it may stick in the gullets of the politically correct, the fact is, it's still generally dad who takes children out - to football, to the park - and mum who stays at home to welcome them on their return.

So it's not surprising that Stephanie's husband advocates their son's independence, while Stephanie herself is left gibbering with anxiety and counting the minutes until the child returns from the shops. It was ever thus, and ever will be.

There is a balance to be reached, but at a price for Stephanie herself. At this stage she must let her son go out to a few local places, for specified times, on his own. Because she loves him and cares for him, she may bite her nails, time him, even secretly tail him and let her hair grow grey with anxiety. But she must let not one scrap of this anxiety show. Rather, she should greet his return with cheerful, whistling "Hey, back already?" nonchalance rather than gasps of relief. The frightful tension she is experiencing is exactly how she is meant to feel at this stage in her child's life.

In other words, you're doing just fine as it is, Stephanie. Welcome to the wonderful, nerve-racking world of motherhood.

This week's problem: When Stephanie's nine-year-old son wants to go to the local shops on his own, she becomes exceptionally worried. She imagines all kinds of disasters, from rape to murder, and she times his return. His father says the boy should be allowed his independence, but his mother is not reassured. Is she being over-protective?

The trusting mother of an independent nine-year-old

Nine-year-old boys vary enormously as to their maturity - some are very sensible and capable while others are living half the time in a dream world and are incapable of doing quite simple tasks efficiently. You know better than anyone else into which category your son falls. But the more opportunities you give him to learn to manage by himself, the quicker he will mature. Take advantage now of his natural desires to do everything himself, rather than wait until he is an apathetic teenager who doesn't want to do anything.

You have other, younger children; do you sometimes tell your son that he can't do this or have that because he is the oldest? If so, then you must give him the independence that goes with his status; distinguish him from the "babies".

My nine-year-old son travels to school on the Tube by himself (although he is accompanied to and from the station). I know that this horrifies some of his classmates' mothers who drive their children everywhere, but he is a sensible child and has learnt to cope with the journey very well. He has had the occasional "adventure" (such as being accosted by a drunk) and I shudder inwardly when he relates them with relish, but he has in each case acted sensibly and I know I can trust him. Last weekend he went to the local shops by himself for the first time.

Give your son his "freedom" in small amounts at first. Yes, we all have our hearts in our mouths when our children are on their own in the big, dangerous world but remember that child abductions are rare. Just make sure it is drilled into him how to cross roads, never to go off with anyone and always to come straight home after completing his task or by a stated time. Then sit down, take a deep breath and look forward to the future with your lovely mature, confident son.

Clare Booth, Ealing

A grown-up son's reassurance

A child is much more likely to be assaulted by a close relative at home than by a stranger. This is, of course, no comfort to those very few people whose children are assaulted by strangers, but the truth is that one cannot eliminate risk entirely. Yet many people are imprisoned in their own homes by needless fear of remote dangers.

Stephanie should not think that she will stop worrying when her son is 18. I am 43, and my mother's farewell to me is almost invariably "Do be careful darling".

Dr Andrew Smith, Herts

The reluctant fatalist

You have to let go. The sooner they become independent the better they can cope with life and its dangers and problems as they grow older. On the other hand, you never stop worrying about them, or I don't anyway!

Our eldest is coming up to 21 and was due to go to France the summer after the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster. I was reluctant to let him go, but my husband asked how I would feel if he was knocked down and killed while he should have been in France. That put it in perspective for me - you can't control fate. What will be will be. Let him go - gradually. It does get easier as they get older. Good luck.

Mrs Meryl Johnson, Herts

The fellow worrier

I too have been worried about the dangers of child abduction. Last July I was just beginning to persuade myself that media coverage had exaggerated the extent of the risk in my mind. But I now realise that there is a greater danger out there.

In July, on a warm summer's evening, a 10-year- old-boy was playing on his bike near here. He was momentarily distracted and rode straight out into the path of a car. He was killed. I was forced to change my mind.

Unfortunately, the risks posed to children on bikes and on foot posed by cars is in no way exaggerated. I believe the statistics show that, on average, one child a day is killed on our roads.

Kate Smith, Bristol

N E X T W E E K' S D I L E M M A

Dear Virginia,

My sister has been something of a depressive all her life. She has made two suicide bids, and has only had one, unsuccessful, relationship, resulting in her daughter, now six. For a short period she was addicted to drugs, but thankfully, after we got her into treatment, she managed to beat that. With the help of therapy, we all thought she was coming out of the woods. She got a new job, and even booked a summer holiday with friends. But five months ago she did a bogus personality test handed to her by someone in the street - and is now in the grips of a dubious cult. On the plus side, no one can deny she looks happier; on the minus side, she is talking of giving up her job to work for the cult. She is brainwashing my poor niece into believing the cult's pseudo-religious rubbish, and last night told me that she had given them £5,000 - half her life savings. Her therapist has told her that this cult is just another addiction. But what are we, her family, to do? Hire someone to brainwash her back to real life? Or leave her be? I am sick with worry about her and, of course, my niece.

Yours sincerely, Val

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, London E14 5DL; fax 071-293-2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share with readers, let me know.

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