No Parents Allowed

A year ago I was fretting that our kids would never know the true joy of outdoor play in winter. On one particularly bleak afternoon, our two oldest kids were home from elementary school in the wake of yet another blizzard and they had a serious case of cabin fever. We live in the city and don’t have easy access to the hills, streams, and ponds I enjoyed as a child. But I had to get them outside, even if briefly, before dinner. So we did what any urban family does for fun in winter: We took our plastic saucers to the church parking lot across the street and sledded down the small, crusted hill that a snowplow had piled in the corner.

To my son and daughter, it was great fun. To me, it was the most pathetic attempt at an outdoor activity in the history of childhood. I vowed that Winter 2012 would be different: They would ski, they would skate, they would romp through fields of fresh, white powder. They would feel the profound relief of coming in from the cold just when you think your toes are about to fall off. Of course, that plan was hatched before winter decided to go AWOL. But nature be damned. On New Year’s Day I packed the two of them up, left the toddler home with my husband, and drove to Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire so they could ski for the first time.

At the Learning Center, a phalanx of fit, parka-wearing ski instructors gave us forms to sign and badges to wear. And then they looked at me as if I were the woman at the bar who’d had one too many cocktails and needed to go home. I spied a small wooden gate behind them. On it a sign read: “No parents allowed beyond this point.”

I bristled. I’d imagined ushering my kids through getting their skis and tromping outside. But the instructors were manning that gate like the Gestapo, so I quickly smeared some Vaseline across my kids’ lips, zipped their coats up to their chins, and said, “Have fun!” Then I stepped back and watched them pass, like miniature astronauts, through that gate.

Alone at the lodge I found a table with a view of their hill, and as a gaggle of kids started to trickle up it, I tried to find mine. When I realized they were too far away to decipher, I gave up and opened my laptop. Occasionally I’d look up from my work and try to pinpoint my daughter’s puffy pink coat or my son’s aqua jacket, but all I could see was a steady stream of small, dark figures, like upside-down Y’s coming down the hill. Viewed from a distance, they looked both impossibly small and incredibly able.

The gate suddenly made sense. It was the ski resort’s way of saying the kids are all right. It was also a concrete example of the limits now being set by the people who care for, coach, and teach our kids—limits for the parents, not the kids. From the school counselors who say more and more parents aren’t letting their kids go on overnight school trips to the university officials who orchestrate “goodbye” ceremonies to help parents separate from their college-age kids, institutions are now forced to close ranks around children so the parents will leave them alone.

I thought of something a friend had told me when I was writing the feature story on overparenting for the December issue. Her grandmother once said, “I didn’t raise my kids — they ran around and grew up.” Those words rang in my head as I watched the kids stream downhill, then head back up for more. There weren’t just skiing for the first time; they were traversing a new landscape within themselves.

“No parents allowed” made all the sense in the world.