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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Free-Range Kids

You probably remember in 2008 (has it been that long already?) when columnist Lenore Skenazy let her son ride home by himself on the NYC subway system. Then she wrote about the experience.

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

let him watch a small group of older boys play video games at a Sears store in Hollywood, Florida, while she walked a few aisles away to shop for a lamp. When RevĂ© returned to the video game section about seven minutes later, Adam and the group of boys were gone.
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.

More reading:
Roger Ebert - Raising Free Range Kids
Online Child Predator Statistics


Diana J. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Diana J. said...

I completely understand where free-range philosophy comes from, but I also share your concerns listed above. One of my main concerns about free-range concerns the rise of pornography and child pornography. I was reading up on the subject last week (from the posts on "Women Living Well" blog) and reviewing the different stages of pornography. It starts out as "scantily clad ladies," but as the addiction progresses, goes down darker and darker paths - like child pornography - and eventually ends in acting out the pictures viewed. I know that pornography is at epidemic levels in this country, and growing daily, meaning that more and more men are starting to experiment with viewing child porn and thus starting to view children as sexual objects (I think this also ties into the current rage for dressing very young girls in sexual ways). I am not comfortable turning my child loose and walking away when I know that our society has such troubling undercurrents, and where my child is unfortunately a sexual target for a growing number of porn-addicted and emotionally unbalanced men.

And then there's the whole issue of unsupervised internet, television, movies, video games and music - NOT okay.

Looking forward to seeing the comments!

Anonymous said...

We can't be with our kids at all times and protect them from everyone who would seek to do them harm. However, when we are there we need the tools that will enable us to protect them (and ourselves). And 911 doesn't cut it when the bad guy is 20 feet away and closing the gap.I encourage all mothers who are able to get a gun, learn how to use it, be prepared mentally to use it, and get a permit and carry ALL times, in ALL places it is legal. This kind of stuff doesn't happen when you expect it. It is unfortunate that such measures are needed, but I want more than bare hands to fight with if my life or the lives of my kids are put in jeopardy.

The Deranged Housewife said...

I don't know if I would carry a firearm with me - I mean, that doesn't exactly mix with diaper bags. In the house, with trigger locks and in a locked place - that is another topic entirely.

I think more than crime is the fact that we have become such a detached society. Kids can't just go outside and play anymore not because of crime so much, but because no one does this anymore - not just kids. People used to visit each other, come over without calling, even! and that was acceptable, and expected. Now playdates are scheduled.

I'll never forget the time the neighbor's grandson was visiting - I was in the living room nursing the baby and suddenly saw a face appear in the front window. I said to my husband, "Who the heck was that?" as the figure dashed away. He went outside and saw their grandson, looking for my son, to play. His dad apologized later and I said, "no! I thought it was great! Kids around here don't do that anymore. SEnd him over anytime you want!" :P

Anonymous said...

I admit- my last post was a bit OT :) However, a gun locked away with a trigger lock does me no good if I can't get to it in time to prevent an incident. That's why educating our children on firearms (!) as well as carring them on our persons is the best route IMO.

As to this free-range idea, well I am all for it when it comes to chickens...CHILDREN though, that's a different story.

Ethel said...

Yup, things are not the same as they used to be - they are far safer then when I was growing up (again, 70s and 80s) and continue to be. Except the amount of childhood obesity is going to kill our kids faster and surer then worrying about them will.

About 80% of parents at my son's grade school DRIVE THEIR KID TO SCHOOL, 90% of students live <1 mile radius, as in walking distance. Of the rest, I am the only parent of a kindergartner who lets her kid walk to school alone - and it scares his principal despite the statistics supporting our choice. Behind our home I watch the junior high students waddle around the track during PE, 1/3 are obese, and I do not exaggerate. In my son's kindergarten class two students out of 52 are obese, as in ~20-30lbs too heavy.
Raising free range kids is more then allowing freedom, unstructured free time (which is critical to development), but exercise and time in nature when they are alone.

When we are "retired" kids who could be our kids will be doing dialysis, having heart attacks and strokes, loosing limbs, undergoing radiation... at rates that are going to be terribly high. It makes me weep.

As for the silly worries about pedophiles, predators, etc... - they are less bold and more wary. Used to be around every corner there was some dude asking "Have you seen my puppy" and flashing his penis, I haven't heard that happening for a long time. I have been fully immersed in the fight against domestic violence and sexual abuse/sexual violence (volunteer for 15 years and worked for 3) - things are way better.

TracyKM said...

We're in this debate with my family too. My about to be 11 son has had a hard time since we moved here and I encourage to just get outside, walk around, see who's out. Whenever a friend drops by to ask him to come out, I practically push him out the door (although I'd rather have the friends in, he does need some fresh air too). However, on Sat. he went out and didn't come back at dinner time and after 5 hours my husband went out looking for him (I wasn't too worried yet, but hubby was).(he was in a backyard).
They walk to school...10 houses....but I know that's a big prey time and I just hope the crossing guard and other kids are a deterent. I am strict about computer use though.
I had a scary experience last summer in a large, urban park, with my 4 year old. Had ALL the markings of bad intentions (money given, conversation, asked if she wanted food, I declined, the lady tried to lead her away from me!), but I felt the lady was more likely not mentally stable. The next day I called the police, just to let them know. The first person on the phone couldn't believe I waited a day, the officer though wasn't concerned at all. Who knows what the lady would have done if I had been more trusting! While I want my kids to trust their inner instincts, I don't want them to be in positions where they have to!

The Deranged Housewife said...

Tracey - wow, that is scary! That happened to a friend of mine - her children are now in their 20s, but she told me how they were traveling once and stopped somewhere to rest/eat, etc. They were outside like in a picnic area, and someone came over and started talking to their son. Mom and dad were slightly distracted, I guess, and she looked over and the person was trying to lead their son away from them. I would have blown a gasket and freaked out at that point!