News outlets and TV shows picked up the story. Many were outraged; some thought it was totally awesome. I had mixed reactions. While NYC is one of my favorite cities, even I couldn't probably navigate my way to the subway; but then again, I've never lived there and traveled it every day, either.
I guess as a mom I consider myself somewhere in the middle. We live in a semi-rural area, on a school campus, actually - which is a great little community with lots of nice sidewalks to bike on and kids to play with. Our backyard butts up against the quadrangle, and once my son turned five, he was allowed to bike by himself. He knows his boundaries - like he's not to go on the "black parts" (which are parking lots and access roads, simply because there are some assholes living on campus who decide to treat them like a local freeway and drive too fast). Anyway, for a kid, it's probably heaven to trawl around on your bike, feel the wind in your hair... (if that's possible while wearing a bike helmet, at least).
I try not to think about the random groups of people who occasionally rent buildings on campus for such varied things like athletic tournaments and Buddhist retreats. I try not to think about how quick and easy it is to access the freeway from our house, leading to a major US city and eventually, the Canadian border.
I also think of the places I went on my bike - crossing four lanes of traffic in a busy town, for instance - and how if I had been hit by a car, my mother wouldn't have even known where I was. (We were visiting relatives at the time.)
I grew up a child of the late 70s and 80s, with stories about Adam Walsh making the headlines. He would have been about the same age as me, just a few weeks apart. Later it was Polly Klaas (who was abducted from her own home), and Amy Mihaljevic - a Cleveland area pre-teen who was kidnaped from a shopping center after being there, alone. Her body was recovered in the county next to the one I grew up in.
Jaycee Dugard, whose name recently made headlines after emerging from captivity after nearly 20 years, was kidnaped from the school bus stop, within eyesight of her stepfather and her own home.
I thought to myself, Where was Adam Walsh's mother when this happened? According to this Wiki article, she
A few aisles away? What the heck?!
This story reminds me of one I read not long ago about a boy who was sexually assaulted in a public library, while the place was open and his mother sat not far away. (Apparently this isn't the first recent case of this, either.)
Skenazy thinks parents are overprotective and paranoid much of the time, and I suppose in some ways, I agree with her. Every day for an entire school year, I'd watch one mom pull up in her minivan and wait in the driveway for her son to get done with class so she could shuttle him someplace. This at a boarding school, where her son is supposed to learn life skills and how to function as a young man in an environment without his mother hovering over him. She was the true definition of a "helicopter mom," one who refused to admit that her son had anything to do with his troubles at school.
Like Skenazy, I want to instill in my children a sense of responsibility and self-reliance. But I think some unsupervised activities - like the subway ride - might be taking it to extremes. And to assume that any parent who doesn't believe in letting their kids go "free range" is one who immediately rushes to kiss all boo boos of any magnitude, no matter how big or small, is pushing it.
In an age where the "attachment parenting" philosophy is embraced - often by people who think cribs are dangerous and letting your child cry for even "one minute!" is torture on their delicate feelings and emotions, I'm not sure where "free range" fits on the spectrum. My children haven't, as far as I can tell, exhibited any signs of emotional detachment because I let them sob in their crib for exactly two minutes 45 seconds, which sounds a lot less dangerous to them than a chance encounter with a stranger who had ill intentions.
I remember a couple summers ago being at the mini golf course with my husband and our kids. Suddenly a strange boy appeared, hanging out with us a little like he wanted to join in. My husband and I looked at each other like, "Where did he come from?" and looked around for a set of parents who appeared like they belonged to him. There was a small group way on the other side of the course, and a couple of others who looked detached and uncaring. Then he disappeared and that was that. I thought to myself, What if we had been crazy people who wanted to kidnap their child? Aside from the fact that we had our own children with us, it's not uncommon for women to accompany men in their quest to pick up kids - as was the case with Jaycee Dugard's disappearance. (In some ways I think it makes a child more willing to come to a stranger, because a woman is perceived as caring and "safe.")
Skenazy says parents need to relax, because hey - crime is actually at an all-time low. It's actually our perception of crime that is greater. That may be true; statistically the numbers might be down, but it might not be what people are actually seeing when they look out their windows at night. I also wonder what percentage of crimes - from petty theft and vehicle break-ins to rape - go unreported. (Some sources estimate that roughly 60 percent of rapes go unreported.) Some people acknowledge that depending on the level of crime, the police may be called but won't even come to the scene if the estimated damages don't reach a certain amount; otherwise it's not even worth their time. That still makes it crime, though, doesn't it?
Lower crime rates are one thing; but crimes against children are sort of in a separate class by themselves. You take your average criminal and ask him how he feels about child rape, and I bet he'd tell you it's pretty bad. Those who commit heinous crimes - like Jeffrey Dahmer, for instance - are often reviled and hated even worse than 'regular' offenders, taken to task accordingly, it seems. (Dahmer's crimes were so bad, I guess, that the prison population decided to save taxpayers money and do away with him themselves.)
I'm sure Skenazy doesn't advocate putting your children in dangerous situations deliberately, but perhaps her ideas of dangerous are different than someone else's. Her "Take Your Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day" is set for May 21 - although some parents I know won't be leaving their kids. One mom told me that some wackjob stranger has been randomly hiding razor blades along the slides and other playground equipment - for a grand total of 30 found - so that children can cut themselves. She also notes that her small US city has had four abductions attempts while children walked to school, two of which resulted in sexual assaults.
I think people automatically think it's only the "country bumpkins afraid of the big city!" who are the paranoid ones. Maybe; maybe it's because crime now spreads to outlying areas that were once deemed "safe." Not far from my house is a beautiful rural park that unfortunately has also been the target of three suicide attempts within about a year's time, and is also rumored to be a favorite spot among those seeking illicit sexual encounters as well as drug trades. All within the confines of our idyllic little "safe" suburb.
Like it or not, things are not the same as they used to be. Yes, crime has always existed, and crimes against children are nothing new. Perhaps the media is responsible for making us more afraid because we now hear about it all the time. I'm not totally sure I believe this, though. I think offenders are getting more brazen; defying sex offender laws and setting up camp close to schools, for instance, flying under the radar. Because I volunteer at my son's school, I am required to take a workshop and regular refresher courses in identifying sexual abuse in children, and was subjected to interviews given by child predators in what they looked for in victims. Unsupervised, or what they probably consider poorly supervised, children are probably at the top of the list.
But perhaps the biggest place for child predators is online - something that didn't even exist 20 or more years ago when "we were kids." Online chat rooms and porn are the new battleground in the fight for your child's safety and give people even more access than ever before.
In some ways, I see it as a gradual decline in morals and a degrading of society that contributes to why our kids can't have their anal parents just get off their backs already and let them be kids. Yes, in typical kid fashion, they'll experiment, do dumb stuff, and occasionally get burned. When I look around, though, part of it is our own faults - because a difference of opinion on how to raise children has produced parents who let their kids listen to music that's totally inappropriate for their age level; where a fascination for Justin Beiber and Hannah Montana is cultivated and thought to be "cute" in kids who aren't even in kindergarten yet; in young girls who are marketing targets for the fashion industry and encouraged to wear heels and dress beyond their years. Where are the parents? Who knows. Maybe a little too free range?
Every generation says, "Wow, I can't believe what kids do/say/think these days." I'm sure if you compared successive generations from 1900 to the present, there would be some major heart attacks going on over behavior that is considered prudish by today's standards. Bring a gun to school in 1950 and you'd get laughed out of school, one old guy told me. Then again, a classmate of my dad's (who graduated in the late 1950s) decided to take that one step further and shoot his parents in cold blood.
Perhaps crime and abuse are really more prevalent today; maybe not. One thing is for sure, though: the challenges and dangers our children face are changing and getting more and more complex. This isn't 1963 anymore, Lenore.
Roger Ebert - Raising Free Range Kids
Online Child Predator Statistics