How slack can a parent´s limits be?

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When I went to Costa Rica I was looking to live in the middle of a small town. Back in Brazil, my house is the only one in our street and there I let my daughter run free accompanied just by our dogs.

In Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, I chose to rent a room right in town, at a dead ended street, with neighbors all around (except for one side that faces a land with giant trees – sweet).

When I saw the place, I was like ¨Perfect, it´s safe for Luísa to play on the street¨. She was still 3 then.

Our neighbors have a daughter the same age as Luísa and she´s not allowed alone out of the gate.

I´m not that strict, but I don´t judge their decision. For one thing, the mother is pregnant and the house is on the second floor, so it´s kind of hard for her to go after the girl if she has to (would she choose a more free ranger approach like me).

Anyway, Luísa tried to get off of my already slack limits. I told her it´s ok to play on our street only (which is only one block long) and she was good about it for 3 months. Then she wanted to go and play further sometimes. And despite the fact that I´m the one to worry about her, this makes perfect sense to me – wanting to expand the limits (it actually reminds me to do the same for myself).

So, one day, she put her pajamas, her tooth brush and the tooth paste into a plastic bag and told me she was going to her (imaginary) friend´s house to sleep there, and she left. I finished washing the dishes, grabbed my bike and went after her.

She was 3 blocks away and was going further confidently. It was the first time she went that far alone (here in Costa Rica) and I couldn´t help feeling proud of how great and brave she was.

I approached her and said: ¨Where are you going? You have to play on our street. You can´t walk around town alone¨.

She said: ¨I told you I´m going to my friend´s house. You stay here, I´m going alone.¨ She turned around and walked off.

I watched her go. I have fun watching was she´s up to. I go along with her games, like when I take her to her imaginary friend´s house, we bike around town and off while she drives me somewhere that simply doesn´t exist. I usually have to stop her and make a change in her trip. But I´m always curious to see how far she can go.

I followed her for two more blocks, than I felt like going home to lock our house and I picked her up.

I know that what I did may sound crazy, but this small town has about 800 people, with children playing in almost every corner.

The second time she went further than our set limits, I reached her one block away, I knelled down next to her, and I remembered to use ¨I¨ statements the way I learned in a parenting book: ¨Luísa, I understand you want to walk around, but I get worried, I get nervous when I don´t know where you are. I can´t let you go this far alone ¨.

She said: ¨I´m going to pick up some flowers for my friend¨.

Now ¨watch¨ me giving her some limits: ¨You have to tell me when you want to walk away, I might join you or we go later. This is the second time I find you far from home, if it happens again, I´m going to lock the gate, so I don´t get so worried about you¨.

After that, we kept walking together to check on the waves. When we arrived at the beach, Luísa wanted so swim. I said we had to go back home and lock the house and get our bikinis, and she said that she wanted to wait for me there.

Our house is only 3 blocks away from the beach. I thought it was awesome that she felt that she could wait for me alone, usually I ask her to wait for me in front of a store or something and she doesn´t (that mother and daughter strong bond can be very intense between a single child and a single mother).

I knelled down and thought about how to explain. I said: ¨4-year-old girls can´t walk around or stay on the beach alone. If someone sees you alone, they will find it strange and come up to try to help you find me, it would start a confusion¨.

She said calmly: ¨But I can tell them I´m waiting for my mommy¨.

I said: ¨I can´t let you stay here, but you are right, if it ever happens that you are alone and someone approaches you, you tell them you have to wait for mommy and you don´t let them take you anywhere, you know better than anyone where we can meet.¨ It´s about time she receives some guidelines on how to deal with strangers by herself.

I had my eye on her. I was on guard to see if she left our street again (or when). She didn´t leave again and we are now traveling (this post was pre-scheduled). When we go back to Puerto Viejo, we might choose somewhere else to live.

When I can, I drop everything to follow her discoveries. I don´t want to inhibit her free spirit with too many boundaries, many of them just make sense in our heads. Many parents won´t let their children play outside the gate no matter how small and safe their town is. And others might even have wider limits than me (it´s hard to imagine, I know).

This article was originally posted on Tripping Mom by Marilia Di Cesare on July 19, 2011. Republished with authorization. Click here for all other posts.

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