Monday, April 23, 2018

This Is What Happened When I Let My Daughter Ride the Subway Alone

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Recently I saw a video called "Things We Still Ask Our Moms." It was supposed to be funny, but I can't say for sure because I passed out at the sight of grown women calling home to ask their mothers how to do laundry, make a dentist appointment, and even soften a stick of butter. (I was feeling physical pain by the 20-second mark, so be careful and watch at your own risk.)

Hopefully that video isn't representative of all young adults today, but it's a fact that more and more kids are growing up and leaving the house without the basic skills grown-ups need.

Some mothers do their teenagers' laundry and clean their rooms for them; one mom I knew always cut up her 16-year-old daughter's pancakes. (When she asked "What are you going to do when you go to a restaurant on a date?" her daughter answered, "I'll order something I don't need to cut.")

I can't make this stuff up, people.

Raising my kids to become independent, self-sufficient, hard-working adults is kind of an obsession for me. When I consider the sheer volume of things I want my kids to be able to do for themselves by age 18 and how fast their time at home really goes, I feel the pressure. (My favorite book on the subject is The Parenting Breakthrough, which details the value of kids who work and lists age-appropriate tasks so that, you know, your 20-year-old doesn't call home one day asking how to boil an egg.)

In addition to "hard skills" like washing dishes and sweeping floors, I also think a lot about how I can help my kids develop "soft skills." Specifically, I want them to have the confidence to face difficult situations instead of avoiding them, and the resourcefulness to solve problems instead of running away from them.

Which is why I did something that made other parents raise an eyebrow: every day last week, I dropped my 13-year-old daughter off at the subway station with my phone, $20, a bottle of water, and a wave good-bye.

You see, she'd enrolled in a painting class at an art museum in the city about an hour from here. She's a fantastic artist and would of course gain some useful art skills in class, but truthfully I was way more excited for the life skills she was going to learn from getting there on her own.

Questions people asked ranged from "She's how old?" to "She can do that?" to "Are you comfortable with that?"  {posted @ Unremarkable Files}

When I told other parents that my daughter was riding the subway to the class herself, their reactions varied from "Really? How old is did you say she was?" to "Wow, she can do that?"

One person even offered to go with her, but I had to explain that it wasn't a schedule conflict that prevented me from depositing her at the front door of the museum every day  I just wanted her to do it herself.

Another question I got asked was: "Are you comfortable with that?"

Of the dozen or so times I've ridden the subway here, I've never felt unsafe. Our subway system doesn't have a reputation for excessive crime. Realistically speaking, the worst-case scenario was that she'd miss her stop or get on the wrong train when she transferred lines, and be late for class.

Since we're not avid subway-riders, I did go on the train with my daughter the first day. I told her I was just going along to show her how to read the subway maps and the next day, I'd just drop her off at the station and pick her back up in 5 hours.

So what happened when I let her ride the subway on her own?

Absolutely nothing.

Well, let me rephrase that. Absolutely nothing bad happened. She wasn't hurt, taken advantage of, kidnapped, or mugged.

But plenty of good things happened.

The first good thing that happened was that she gained confidence in herself. By the end of the week she was hopping out of the car knowing she could get wherever she needed to go. Her world was bigger than it had been at the beginning.

The second good thing was that she learned to problem-solve. When she tried to buy her ticket on her first solo day, the ticket machine wouldn't accept her money, and there was no attendant at the information booth to help her.

I was already halfway home when she called with her predicament and I told her, "Well, read the instructions on the machine and good luck figuring it out. If there's no attendant and you still can't get it to work, you'll have to ask some random person walking by for help."

So she did ask a random person for help, and a third good thing happened: she saw for herself that "stranger danger" is a dumb concept. Most strangers are not dangerous, evil, or psychotic. The majority of them aren't skulking around looking for opportunities to steal children. They're just nice people trying to catch their train. Be smart and obviously don't go down a dark alleyway with someone you don't know, but there's no reason to avoid interacting with a stranger at all costs.

It turned out that the ticket machine was broken, so the helpful stranger used his own ticket to pay my daughter's fare and let her into the subway. (She felt bad that he wouldn't let her pay him back, so I suggested she could pay it forward and be someone else's helpful subway stranger someday.)

And then a fourth good thing happened. There aren't ticket machines at every stop, meaning that she had to figure out how she was going to get a ticket for her return trip. She used the phone to look up which locations sold tickets, found one, and made an unscheduled stop to go up to street level and figure out how to buy one at the ticket kiosk before transferring lines and continuing on her way to art class. Then she called me to let me know she solved the problem.

Questions people asked ranged from "She's how old?" to "She can do that?" to "Are you comfortable with that?"  {posted @ Unremarkable Files}
A pastel drawing by my daughter, circa 2017. Like I said, she's an amazing artist.

The most valuable thing my 13-year-old learned at art class last week had less to do with color and composition and everything to do with self-confidence. Unlike color theory, confidence isn't just a piece of information that can be taught. In order for her to internalize how capable she is, she's got to have opportunities to see that it's true.

So I loved sending my daughter off on the subway alone, and I would do it again. Because now the next time things go wrong and she doesn't know what to do, I think she'll be able to reach back to this moment and grab on to it, reminding herself, "It's okay. I don't need to feel scared, intimidated, inadequate, or defeated. I can figure this out."

And then she will.

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Unremarkable Files

8 comments:

  1. I’m impressed! I’ve only been on the subway in NYC and it felt like rocket science I could never figure out which I am now ashamed about after reading about your daughter. Maybe you should raise me, too.

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    1. We aren't total subway people so I sort of feel that way, too, especially if we use one in another city on vacation and I don't know the system. But we can figure it out!

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  2. Great story! I'm not at subway riding level with my oldest not quite 8, but I think that you are right on target. My parents were going all over the place at 6+ and even I was babysitting at 14, so it seems foolish to think that a child with $$ and a phone won't be safe enough to commute on her own. Good for you for realizing she is capable and giving her the opportunity to grow.

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    1. I read an excerpt from an old parenting book from the 1950s that listed the characteristics of kids of different ages. Under 8 it said something like, "The 8-year-old is highly independent and sometimes difficult to locate..." Times have changed but I don't think necessarily in all good ways! I would still like to be able to locate my 8-year-old but hopefully still give him the independence to go places and do things on his own.

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  3. Wow! your and her confidence amazes me!!
    Cutting a 16 y o food??? NO. Just NO.

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    1. Well, joke's on me because just this morning I was asked by a child who shall remain nameless to wash a dish for them because "they're not good at it and it takes forever," so I guess I need to push that independence just a LITTLE more...

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  4. I love this! For real. Half of what I want to teach my children is that even if I don't teach them everything - they can read, research and figure it out themselves! This particular story with your daughter reminds me of the summer after my freshman year of high school. I participated in an inner city immersion experience. Basically we were living in solidarity with the homeless - sleeping on the floor of a church, eating food from a food bank, etc. Our first event: they took us to a bus station, gave us a little money and left us. The envelope had an address where we could get food for dinner. It took us hours to get there.

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    1. Yes! The fear and anxiety of doing new things comes from a lack of confidence that you can figure it out or deal with unexpected setbacks along the way. You deal with unanticipated situations literally ALL of adulthood and not believing you can handle it would cripple you!

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