“We’re going on a class trip to France,” my 8-year-old Cai announced a week after he’d started his new school.
“Cool!” I said. In August, we moved our family from Jerusalem to Luxembourg where my husband Matt took a job with the EU. Going to France from Luxembourg is as easy as going to Queens from the Bronx but without the traffic. I’d taken a wrong turn earlier that day and ended up over the border, so I wasn’t fazed.
“I think it’s an overnight trip,” Cai added.
Now I was fazed. We’d just moved countries; he barely knew his classmates. Because the age cutoff is different from Cai’s previous school, he’d skipped from 1st grade to 3rd. Matt, who’d been working from home until this summer, now spent his days in an office–his absence was unfamiliar and upsetting to the kids. There had been so many changes. A night away seemed like too much to throw at a kid who’d never even been on a sleepover before.
Maybe we’ll opt out, I thought. The teacher’s email about the trip came. It wasn’t an overnight. It was four nights–from Monday morning to Friday evening. True to the laissez-faire European parental reputation, these people were sending their 8-year-olds away for five days. But I’m not European, so I felt queasy.
Whenever I tune into the Free Range vs. Helicopter parenting debate, I intellectually agree with the Free Range approach. I believe encouraging children’s independence builds their confidence and benefits them in multiple ways. But in practice, I’m not that relaxed. In spite of my intentions, I worry, coddle, and overprotect. I don’t plan it that way. It just happens. Until a few weeks ago, I still shampooed Cai’s hair, reminded him to pee before going to sleep, and carried his school bag whenever he mindlessly handed it to me. Our days are filled with moments when I “do” for him, rather than letting him fend for himself.
And there I was wondering if I should let him go to France.
I tried to control my anxiety. Rather than introducing the possibility of Cai’s not going, I gauged his attitude. He was nervous, but also excited. Cai was the new kid after all, and the trip might provide a bonding experience between him and his classmates. Or it could be terrible. There was no way to know.
One of the elements of the Free Range approach is showing your kid you have confidence in them. Maybe this move to Europe is an opportunity for me to match my actions with my intentions. I let go of my resistance. I put my faith in my son and filled out the forms.
We said goodbye on a clear and crisp Monday morning. Once the kids boarded the bus, the other parents located their children and waved. The sun was glaring against the windows–I couldn’t spot Cai. I circled the bus several times, but didn’t find him. So I just stood there waving at the tinted glass windows, hoping Cai might see me, wishing he could feel a little of my love as the bus pulled away.
During their trip, the class rep emailed photos to the parents. In a day two photo, Cai looked OK, though I noted he was the only kid wearing short sleeves. But on day four, posing with other kids in front of plates of steak and salad he’d never touch, Cai looked depleted. I showed it to my 4-year-old Mari.
“Everyone is happy except Cai,” she said. I felt tears in my eyes. Was this a huge parenting fail, or just a bad photo?
On Friday evening, Cai stepped off the bus. He looked healthy, but preoccupied and unhappy. I hugged him.
“I have something to tell you,” were his first words to me.
“What is it?”
“Everything in my bag needs a wash,” he said. “I wasn’t so organized and wore clothing from my laundry bag.”
“That’s it?” I said. “How was the trip?”
“The number four archer in the world taught us how to shoot an arrow,” he said. “And I went to my first disco party.”
We spent the weekend listening to Cai tell stories about his five days away. The shelter building in the woods, the horizontal rock climbing, the morning hot chocolate and the secret, late-night board games. I asked him if he’d felt homesick. “No,” he said. “Because this doesn’t feel like my home yet. But I missed you and Dad.”