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What Living In The U.S.S.R. As A Kid Taught Me About Parenting

I was surprised to find that kids in Estonia were much more independent than kids back home in the U.S. Now, as a parent, I'm taking those lessons to heart.

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Estonian kids had a lot of freedom in 1990. At school, we would take off during our lunchtime to eat in a café, or just to roam around the city together. If a teacher didn’t show up for class, which happened not infrequently, we simply picked up and left school. There was no calling Mom and Dad. There weren’t cell phones, after all, and many Estonian families didn’t have phones at all. You just went home or you wandered around the town until it was time to go home. Mostly we just loitered.

Stores were empty, and going to the movies or out for pizza weren’t really options. I remember listening to Leonard Cohen at someone’s summer place and drinking a little sweet wine. I remember classmates and I climbing through cathedral ruins. I remember a class trip to the Baltic Sea, during which a few friends and I struck out on our own only to get lost during a rainstorm. What I don’t remember much of during those times is adults, either their presence or their concern. They had bigger problems. The children found their way back eventually.

My parents like to joke that my wall of bangs came down the same year as the Berlin Wall. I was 14, and I was living in Estonia for six months with my family, my dad teaching at a university, my mom getting acquainted with her aunts and uncles and cousins (her parents fled to the U.S. after World War II). Estonia would become independent shortly after we left, but while we were there it was still under Soviet occupation: central heating that was turned off in the early spring, so no hot water during the spring and summer; rationing of food and gasoline; waiting in endless lines for everything.

And, of course, there were restrictions on speech, travel, and artistic expression. It was, to say the least, a very different world for a 14-year-old girl middle-class girl from Michigan for whom daily showers, frequent outfit changes, and tall, gloriously decadent bangs were a given. But shortly after our arrival in Estonia, I learned that I would have to, and could, live without all of these things. The wall fell.

What I lost in consumer options, however, I made up for in independence.

Not that it was necessarily good or easy. I have lots of uncomfortable and unpleasant memories from that time too, of course, of not feeling like I fit in, of sitting alone during school and reading a lot, of being afraid to say the wrong thing to the wrong person, of craving foods like oranges and bananas that were almost impossible to get at that time. But the entire experience left me with the sense that I could get through anything. I could be OK. And it made me more confident, willing to try new things, more comfortable being uncomfortable.

These are qualities that have served me very well in life. What I didn’t realize was that the experience also taught me to parent in a way that embraces risk rather than trying to avoid it at all costs, because in retrospect it was the moments of risk and discomfort that I learned the most from.

Twenty-five years later, I’m a parent myself with an 8-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. My husband is also from Michigan, and we’ve settled in the northern part of the state. Raising my kids in the U.S., I have always chafed against the way parenting is becoming more about risk management than anything else.

Increasingly, our role as parents seems to be to identify and manage any potential risk to our children’s health and development, no matter how unlikely, no matter how far-fetched, no matter how fantastical. The parenting norm in the U.S., at least for middle-class parents like us, is constant supervision: drive your children to and from school, accompany them everywhere (or pay a caregiver to do so), structure their free time with enriching activities and playdates.

As a parent who allows her children some small measure of independence — for example, to walk alone to the corner store, or to the park, or to bike to a friend’s house — I’m increasingly feeling in the minority. Even more disturbing, parents who refuse (or are unable) to parent according to the strict logic of risk management are being criminalized at worst and at best marginalized and labeled as “free range,” as if they have artisanally produced children who belong in some Brooklyn hipster’s apartment along with the fair trade coffee and locally sourced kale.

Things circle. In September, my husband and I uprooted the kids and came to Estonia to live for a year, both of us teaching at the same university my father taught at 25 years ago. This time, however, we have come to live in an independent Estonia with far more similarities to the U.S. than differences. There are enough malls and pizza and hair products and movies to satisfy even the most insatiable 14-year-old girl. But one thing that hasn’t changed so much is Estonian children’s level of independence. (We live in a college town of around 100,000 inhabitants, so while we’re not talking big city here, we’re also not talking itty-bitty village.)

Every day I see children walking by themselves or with a friend or sibling or in a pack all over the town, all the time. I see them walking to and from school. I see them playing unsupervised in the park. I see them riding around on buses, bikes, scooters, and skateboards. For months this winter, they were even roaming the streets in the dark, because it’s Northern Europe and the sun sets around 3 p.m. and rises around 9 a.m. Everybody, adults included, has little reflectors tied to their zippers or backpacks, some in the shape of stars or snowflakes, some in the shape of ladybugs or birds.

So it’s not that parents throw caution to the wind here by any means, but that they parent according to something other than the logic of total risk avoidance. It has been a relief to be part of the parenting mainstream, even to be on the conservative end of the mainstream.

For my children, their new level of independence took some adjustment. For instance, the first time my 8-year-old son tried to walk himself to school, he showed up back at the front door of the apartment in tears. But the other day, he called me on his way home from a class trip to a museum because he’d gotten turned around. “Do you need me to come and meet you?” I asked. “No, Mom, I’ve got this,” he replied confidently. My 12-year-old daughter, who at first was even worried about finding her classroom, is now confident walking almost anywhere by herself, and even knows how to navigate some of the city bus lines. These are not the same kids they were when we arrived months ago.

Since I’ve been living and parenting here this year, I’ve been wondering how much risk avoidance in U.S. parenting is about alleviating parental worry rather than keeping children safe. In nostalgic blog posts about our childhoods in the late Cold War era of the 1980s, worry is a common trope. Supposedly, our parents just didn’t worry about us as much as we do, or they weren’t as aware of all the world’s dangers as we are.

It occurs to me on the eve of my return to the U.S. parenting world that perhaps it is not our awareness of danger or our worrying that has changed in the U.S. Parents in the 1980s were not as blissfully ignorant of the world's perils as we might like to believe. (Remember “stranger danger”?) When my kids are out and about, I worry about them getting lost or looking both ways before they zoom across the street on their scooter or skateboard. There are a few times when they haven’t shown up when and where I thought they would and I’ve been paralyzed with panic. It would almost be psychologically easier to accompany them everywhere they go.

Parents have always worried. What has changed, I think, is our cultural perception that parents always have a moral obligation to act on their worries (or on society’s worries), even if it means not trusting children to make decisions for themselves, even if it means not trusting ourselves to let go.

If my parents had parented according to the logic of risk management, I don’t think they’d ever have considered taking us behind the iron curtain to live in Soviet-era Estonia. They did it in spite of their worries and misgivings. They did it because they had a hunch that, for better or for worse, it would be a life-changing experience for all of us. And it was.

It certainly taught me that parenting is not only about protecting and sheltering, but also about teaching children how to take risks, how to trust themselves, and how embracing a moment of discomfort can lead to a wonderful experience, or at least to a hell of a good story.

This past December, the town square was ablaze in lights and decked in greenery complete with an enormous Christmas tree and, inexplicably, a festively decorated barge, festooned with white lights. There were iron kettles in the square along with wood, and anyone who pleased could build and light a fire. Alongside the barge, there was a woodworking station where passersby could try out different kinds of saws. There wasn’t any kind of obvious supervision for these activities, and my knee-jerk American reaction was to be a little horrified. “They just have saws lying around? And materials for building a fire? For anybody to use? Isn’t that…kind of dangerous?”

To top matters off, there was a horse-drawn carriage offering rides around the square, and the horse was not trotting slowly, but cantering briskly as pedestrians hustled out of the way. But after all, no one seemed to be getting trampled, dismembered, or lit on fire. I got over my momentary fastidiousness and the kids took turns with an enormous two-person saw. Afterward, we warmed our hands at a nearby fire and bought tickets for a carriage ride. The horse took off at such a fast clip that the children shrieked with surprise and laughter as pedestrians scattered for their lives and we galloped together into the darkness of the midwinter night.

Marika Seigel is the author of "The Rhetoric of Pregnancy" and "Expecting: A Brief History of Pregnancy Advice," both with University of Chicago Press. Her work has also appeared in "Al Jazeera America" and The Butter. Photo credit: brockit.inc

Contact Marika Seigel at marikaseigelbuzzfeed@gmail.com.

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