The road to freedom and independence for my son

My son began taking public transport on his own recently and his growing independence has not only freed up much of my time, but also built up his confidence

The new school year dawned with four letters hanging over me like the sword of Damocles: PSLE. Even if I wanted to, well-meaning friends were not going to let me forget that my son is sitting the Primary School Leaving Examination this year.

One girlfriend, whose son is facing the same gruelling journey, sent me a New Year greeting via WhatsApp along with the PSLE schedule.

Two other friends dropped off revision notes that their kids, now safely past the hurdle, had found useful.

But the hot topic among my group of mummy friends during the first two weeks of school had nothing to do with the dreaded exam.

Instead, we were all training our boys to master something else that’s equally, if not more, important: taking public transport on their own.

Some parenting experts say a clear sign that your child is ready to take this leap is when he asks to do so. My son, who turns 12 this year, has been begging to take the bus home from school since last year.

“My friends are making fun of me, saying that I am over-protected,” he complained.

Some of his friends have been getting around on their own for several years and he took the bus with them once after school last year to have lunch nearby.

That whetted his appetite for going it alone, but I didn’t think he was ready for it.

His school was a good distance from the bus stop and he would have to cross two busy main roads to get there. Given his dreamy self, I was worried that he wouldn’t be able to make his way there safely, hop onto the right connecting bus or get off at the right stop.

But they say successful parenting involves knowing when to let go. I decided recently it was time he ventured out alone.

So he began travelling to and from his tuition centre by bus during the year-end school break.

The straightforward journey served as a good dry run. There are several direct bus services that ply between our place and the centre, and the ride takes at most 25 minutes each way.

Besides, I’ve driven the same route many times and pointed out to him the stops he should alight at or board the bus from.

He made multiple trips without incident over the holidays. So when school reopened, we agreed that he could advance to the next level.

The journey home from school by bus is a little more complicated. It’s different from, and longer than, the way we usually take by car and involves switching to another bus midway.

I mapped out the route for him, made him memorise the bus service numbers for both legs of the trip and repeated the key safety dos and don’ts.

Then I found out several friends were also prepping their kids to go solo.

K told her son to take the bus to a nearby mall after school and waited for him at the stop as a trial.

P was tireless in her test run. She parked her car near the school after dropping her son off one morning and took the bus home. She wanted to gauge the time needed and flag the things that her son should take note of along the way.

Then she went back to pick up her car, drove home, rode the bus back to school and took it home again with her son.

That happened to be the day my son was making his debut journey home from school alone and she ran into him at the bus stop.

“He just got on the bus,” she texted, 15 minutes after school let out. I was grateful for her message, as I had yet to hear from my son.

Then she spotted the dad of one of our boys’ schoolmates “hiding behind some bushes” near the bus stop.

His son was apparently making his first commute via public transit too and we reckoned he was there to make sure he would get home in one piece.

It’s hard not to think about all the things that could go wrong – from minor scrapes to major accidents – when your child first strikes out on his own.

He could fall, board the wrong bus or miss his stop. Or he could get lost, robbed or mowed down by a car.

The same thoughts must have crossed our parents’ minds years ago, back when they could neither track our movements nor confirm our safety via mobile phones. Yet we were allowed out on our own at a far younger age and were none the worse for it.

And despite – or perhaps because of – the easy access to people and information that mobile devices grant us, we somehow perceive the world today as a far more dangerous place. We grapple with the niggling fear that our kids risk being harmed every moment that they are unsupervised.

But child experts have a refrain: The best way to protect your children is to make them confident, not swaddle them with cotton wool.

We can do a dry run with them, arm them with directions and coach them on how to ask strangers for help if need be. But eventually, the leash has to come off.

As Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children The Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry, wrote in a 2015 column: “To become street-smart and self-reliant requires spending some time doing things on your own.”

The New Yorker was dubbed “America’s worst mom” after letting her then nine-year-old son ride the subway on his own in 2008 and writing about it.

The furore that ensued prompted her to launch the “Free-Range Kids” movement, which challenges parents to not be shackled by fear but give children the freedom they need to grow and develop critical life skills.

I didn’t realise it, but driving my son had become our daily bonding ritual.

I miss the random conversations we used to have and the window to his life that they offered. I miss him confiding in me because not having to look at me while I kept my eyes on the road just made it easier for him to unload sometimes.

But his growing independence has freed up much of my time and boosted his self-confidence. He has made his way back without a hitch on wet days and drizzly nights, even picking up some school supplies or favourite snacks along the way.

He is proving that he can keep his wits about him when I’m not around to act as his safety net.

When my son looks back on 2019, I hope the stress of making it through the PSLE is but a faint memory.

Instead, I hope he cherishes it as a year of far more important milestones: the year he sat on the cusp of adolescence and tasted freedom for the first time; the year he ventured out without mum and dad and realised, “Hey, I can do this – and I can do a lot more than this.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 13, 2019, with the headline 'The road to freedom'. Print Edition | Subscribe