A bunch of friends I know in real life and on social media shared with me Hanna Rosin’s article in The Atlantic this week.
“The Overprotected Kid” focuses on modern parents’ preoccupation with safety and cleanliness, and with rules that aim to reduce risks of harm or injury to our children. The suggestion, both stated outright and implied by Rosin, is how this high level of “protection” may actually emotionally and physically damage our kids. And how what we interpret as danger often exists more in our minds (hyped up by overexposed, but uncommon tragedies) than in actuality.
Rosin kicks off the piece by highlighting an “adventure playground” in North Wales called The Land where “a dozen or so … kids dart in and out of large structures made up of wooden pallets stacked on top of one another,” “a frayed rope swing carries you over a creek” and the only stuffed animals or traditional children’s toys are found “face down in the mud.”
There’s a reason people thought of me when they read Rosin’s article.
That’s my son, “driving” an abandoned school bus in the industrial park on Kibbutz Hannaton, where we live in the Lower Galilee. Some of my favorite scenes to instagram or share on Facebook are the ones in which my children are climbing on rubber tires or walking barefoot through my thorny garden. The Land in North Wales, in fact, sounds a lot like the playground behind my daughter’s preschool. Like the playgrounds behind all the preschools here on Hannaton.
And the risky independent play encouraged by child development experts quoted in the article sounds in line with the unsupervised “zombie” game my 11 year old plays well into the afternoon and evenings with ten or so of his multi-aged friends. Or pretty much how our elementary school aged kids spend every Saturday (Shabbat), since many of them are “stuck” on Hannaton, a small village in the middle of nowhere, til the sun goes down Saturday night.
This is kibbutz life for our New Jersey-born children — one side of it, at least. And while it’s easily idealized, especially in 140 characters and through filters, it’s not idyllic. And it’s important I admit that — to myself, mostly, but also to anyone who thinks that “underprotected” looks like the fuzzy colored Garden of Eden many of us imagine from our childhoods spent in the suburbs. Yes, there’s the Israeli version of kick the can, and yes my kids know well the word potluck (which is the same in Hebrew as it is in English), and yes my children pick actual clementines from the tree in our backyard and visit the cows and smell the poop.
But it’s just one piece of the parenting puzzle.
There’s still school and homework and standardized tests. There’s still after school activities and carpool and camp to organize. There are still bullies and bullying and nasty competitive behind-the-back snickers between kids and moms on the playground or on the WhatsApp group. (Yes, we kibbutzniks schedule our lives via WhatsApp, too.)
It’ll take years, decades even, to see if moving my kids from a warm, welcoming, clean, playdate-scheduling, somewhat overparenting Northern New Jersey suburb to a warm, welcoming, dirty, free play, somewhat underparenting kibbutz in Israel will somehow make them less neurotic than I ended up. If living a dirtier life… in jeans … with holes in them, will make them less susceptible to illness and injury. If living a riskier life … in trees … climbing high off the ground to get away from “zombies” will mean they will be less psychopathic or emotionally paralyzed.
What I know for certain, though, is that before we made aliyah, I was very much the stereotypical parent we imagine when we hear the word “overprotective,” “helicopter,” “obsessive,” “controlling.” Not only was I that woman, but I attempted to sell my brand of overprotective parenting to anyone who would listen.
And now, I’m not. I don’t. Or … a little less so. Depends on who you ask. To many of the moms who I call my neighbors and friends, I’m still likely the most overprotective parent on the block. But I see a difference.
It’s not that I’ve abandoned my anxieties. It’s not that kibbutz life disappeared my fears of rapists, child molestors, kidnappers, drowning, choking, falling, losing an eye, tripping with a stick in hand, food allergies. (Nope, definitely didn’t disappear food allergies.) Toxic water. Toxic food. Toxic air. Asteroids. Zombie apocalypse. Nope. All those fears are still present in my life. Add to that war, rockets, and terrorism.
But what I can say after three years parenting in this experiment called kibbutz life is that I can breathe a little easier now.
There is more air.
Underprotecting my kids — even just a little — might not churn out healthier kids. Or it may. But already it’s turned me into a somewhat healthier mother.
I notice this in the way I speak to my children, speak of them.
I notice this in the extra second in between their injury and my reaction.
I notice this in the space between my overwhelm and my heartbeat.
The lump in my throat has shrunk just a little. The butterflies in my belly sleep easier at night.
The dreams — they still turn into nightmares sometimes. Ones in which my children are trying to escape zombies in old gutted out buses.
The questions still linger, too — Am I doing this right? Am I doing them wrong?
Yes. The questions still linger. I can’t see the questions departing any time soon.
But I breathe a little easier now.
Whether it’s the kibbutz air or the space I’ve given my children, I breathe easier now.
As close up as I continue to parent, there is distance.
And in this space, I breathe.