Worlds of Fun ride operators give a little spiel right before they hit the ON button. After the riders are tethered and locked to their seats, after riders are warned to keep their hands and feet inside the car and not stand up, the operators recite an ominous message warning that there’s no turning back, prepare to lose your lunch, the thrill ride is ready to launch.
Last week I took my son and his friend to Worlds of Fun. Just the three of us. We all have season passes, and sometimes when the weather is right, we drop everything and go get our hearts thumping. I consider it good family time. We’re out in the fresh air, walking what I’m sure adds up to miles, making decisions, and compromising together. Most of all, we’re having fun — which is the only tangible goal. We’re laughing, talking, biding time in the lines together, people watching, and experiencing adrenaline rushes. Together. It’s all about being together.
At least, it used to be.
Being there as a mom with two 10-year-old boys was a different story. This time, I was the facilitator, not part of the togetherness. On the ride up, the two tweens chattered and sifted through Pokemon cards. On the way back, they re-enacted a YouTube video about muffins. And while we were there, well, we worked on adjusting the length of their leash.
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At Oceans of Fun, I cut the leash. (I’m allergic to a common sunscreen ingredient that must be thick in the water — their water causes me to break out in itchy welts.) We laid out the rules, I pointed out where to find me, told them when to check back with me, and set them on their way to the octopus of towering waterslides.
Were they really alone? No, not really. Lifeguards, park staff, a gazillion parents were all part of a village that would help keep them in check and rescue them if need be. Safety measures were in place, and I watched from afar, giving them space, letting them feel wild and free.
They wanted to move on to the Lazy River, and I perched on the side in a reclining chair. They floated, swam and water-walked round and round. Each time they came by, I could see evidence of their activities beyond my view. They passed twice, having lost each other, asking me if I’d seen the other. Again, they floated by, this time together in a double tube. Another time, they chased some much older, screaming teenagers. They chose their own activities, made friends (or perhaps frenemies), and navigated the river. I merely watched.
It’s a new era. My kids are reaching a new level of independence, and as their leash grows longer, I find myself feeling somewhat superfluous on the sidelines. But my job is far from over. I still operate the thrill ride, check the safety mechanisms, issue the instructions. The river they ride is contained — a smaller-sized, safer replica. The thrill rides have safety harnesses and brakes.
One day, however, I’ll have to turn them loose into the thrill ride of the real world. They’ll be ready to launch — but this time without lifeguards, no seat belts, no chicken exits.
One thing will remain the same. I’ll make sure they know exactly where they can find me, and I’ll be waiting for them each time they come around.
Overland Park mom and 913 freelancer Emily Parnell writes for Diversions each week.