As old-fashioned as it sounds, when we go out together as a family, I take charge of the kids and my husband, John, takes charge of the money. It was only natural, then, that on a recent Sunday at Silver Falls State Park, I took the boys to the restroom, while John stood in line for lunch. Tim and Casey (ages 7 and 4) headed straight for the men's room. As Tim opened the door, I called out, 'Wait!' With the door still open, and Tim giving me the 'Oh, Brother' eye-roll, I reminded them of the rule: 'You two stay together. I'll be right here outside the door waiting for you.'
A few minutes later, a tall, barrel-chested man in worn brown boots lumbered out and said, 'Are those your boys in there? You need to teach them some manners.' He then told me, in quite colorful language, that Casey had peeked under the stall door, and that he had made it very clear to Casey that you're not supposed to do that.
Right after he walked away, the boys came out. They seemed fine, not at all bothered by what had happened, but I was shaken by what could have happened. I spent the rest of the day second-guessing my actions and saying silent prayers of thanks.
The Silver Falls incident revived the Great Bathroom Debate I've been having with myself and my friends for the last two years. When is a child old enough to go into a public restroom without an adult? I took an informal poll: My friend Paris, a public defender in Los Angeles, was adamant. 'Don't do it,' she said. The grandmother I met in the park was quick to say that a child should be, 'older than you've got.'
My pediatrician was not so quick or decisive. After a long pause, she said, 'All I can tell you is that my son is 10 and I let him go alone, but I stand right outside the door and he knows that all he has to do is make some noise and I'm coming in.'
Finally, my friend, Laura, was matter-of-fact. She said, 'I don't like to do it, but sometimes I have no choice.'
Often, I am out with my boys and find myself with no good choice. I could force Tim to use the ladies' room even though he is, understandably, embarrassed and uncomfortable doing that, or I could stick with my usual 'hover outside the men's room door' routine, which leaves me uncomfortably worried (and a little embarrassed). Given these two options, I choose the men's room, figuring that public humiliation at the hands of your mother is probably the greater evil.
Every time I make this choice, part of me feels like I'm breaking a promise. From the moment I knew of their existence, I have tried to protect my boys. When I was pregnant, I gave up caffeine and tuna fish. After they were born, I invested in car seats, outlet covers, gates and toilet locks. The initial love-rush I felt when I first held them was followed almost immediately by an equally powerful, primal instinct to keep them safe, and that feeling has not waned in the intervening years. I feel the weight of that responsibility every time they disappear into the men's room.
I worry, though, that I am sending the wrong message to my children - teaching them to be afraid and suspicious and to expect the worst from others, rather than to be confident and hopeful and to expect the best. I promised to keep them safe, but I also promised to give them a full life. If I want my boys to grow into secure, independent men, I have to give them opportunities to assert their independence when they are young. But how much independence, and when? When does a valid concern for their safety cross the line into stifling paranoia?
With my younger boys, these questions are fairly easy to answer. My youngest, Jordy, turned 2 at the end of May, and he wants to do everything by himself. I let him go out on our deck to pick strawberries, but never alone. I let him go down the big slide at the park, but I stand at the bottom ready to catch him if he falls. I let Casey go to birthday parties and play-dates without me, but I don't allow sleep-overs. With Timothy, though, the line between concern and paranoia is not as clear. Is he old enough to walk alone to his friend's house two blocks away? Is he old enough to play alone at the park across the street? Is he old enough to play unsupervised in the front yard?
For me, the answer to all these questions is, 'Not yet.' Objectively, he may be old enough, but I'm not ready to accept that. I feel conflicted and guilty about it, but I am not ready to step back, to give him that much responsibility for his own safety. I may be out of good options in the Great Bathroom Debate, but there are other debates to come, and as long as I have options, I'll choose to keep my promise. Call me paranoid, but I'm not ready to let go - not yet.