Little Dude is a “walker,” which means he does not require bus transportation to school. His school is, in fact, at the end of my block. Six houses away. 270 steps from the end of my driveway.
I know this because the other day I counted them.
There’s a thin strip of street to cross, which is fervently policed by Gayle, the cheerful blonde Crossing Guard. I live on a quiet, tree-lined block. The only traffic, outside of school arrival and dismissal, is the occasional car belonging to someone who lives in my development.
I’ve walked my kid to and from school every day since kindergarten. Last fall, as he was entering the 4th grade, he begged for the opportunity to walk the 1000 feet himself.
I was torn. In theory, it seemed very safe. In fact, I could stand and observe him walk to the end of the block until he was under the watchful eye of cheery Gayle. It’s probably a 4 minute walk. What could possible go wrong?
Apparently, everything. I have a Facebook page for my civilian, non-blogging friends and family who actually don’t know I even have a blog. I posted. asking for opinions. More than 50 very adamant people weighed in. All but one were convinced that letting my child walk to the end of the block was a potentially life threatening decision, akin to child abuse. Because even in that short span of both time and place, anything could happen.
I decided against letting him walk alone to school. Full disclosure: it wasn’t because all these dogged opinions persuaded me that it was unsafe to do so.
It was because I didn’t want to be judged by the other parents.
I didn’t want to be “that” mom; the one who doesn’t take care of her son correctly. I didn’t want to impact my son’s social life. People where I live are shallow. They’ve just barely learned to accept the fact that I refuse to wear the local suburban mom uniform: Juicy sweat suit, large Louis Vuitton bag, Tory Burch shoes.
(I’m lying about the Tory Burch shoes. I have a shoe addiction so that doesn’t count)
I was afraid I’d be judged as “the mother who doesn’t care if her kid gets kidnapped.” So everyday, I walked him.
After all, (clamored the cacophony of voices on my Facebook page) things are so different today.
When I was a kid, I walked to school everyday, starting in kindergarten. I survived. Well, I got my ass kicked a lot of days. But that was because I grew up an outcast in a predominately black housing project. No kidnapping was involved.
As kids we played outside all day, with no adult supervision. I rode my bike to the library. On summer nights all the kids were outside after dinner until dark, with nary a grownup in sight. You came home when the street lights came on. Or if your mama called for you.
Occasionally, if you heard gunshots.
I’m just keeping it real. It was a nasty, crime-infested housing project.
In 2008, A New York City journalist and mother of 2 named Leonore Skenazy made the controversial decision to allow her 9-year-old to take the subway home from school alone. He begged to, and she felt he was ready to handle the experience. Lenore Skenazy is an Ivy League-educated journalist who has written for several prominent newspapers. I would assume she’s an intelligent person, capable of making a well-informed decision.
She published an article about it and the backlash was intense. It became national news overnight, eventually receiving worldwide coverage. She was verbally annihilated for risking her child’s life. Editorially drawn and quartered for child abuse. Dubbed the “world’s worst mom.”
Was she? She researched statistics to support what she felt was a reasonable and informed decision.
And I agree with her.
I wholeheartedly believe that what has changed most is not the increased risk of kidnapping, but our own psyches. I believe we are a fear based culture. A fear based world, actually, fearful beyond the scope of child rearing. Global fear is the undercarriage of racism, war, homophobia and intolerance of all kinds.
I believe we learn fear. I believe some parents blanket themselves in fear as a cushion of superiority; an indication as to who’s the most careful parent, because being stifling and overbearing is mistaken for valid concern. Fear-based über parenting is the barometer by which we measure the quality of our child rearing. I also believe that we are inundated with gruesome stories of child abductions and murders which dominate he media, thus blowing out of proportion the real facts around these crimes.
I subscribe to the method of parenting whose name Skenazy coined in response to the overwhelming uproar of censure she received. Free range parenting was developed by Skenazy as the antithesis to helicopter parenting.
Helicopter parenting is – well, picture a helicopter hovering a few feet above you, blades rotating furiously. Think about the parents you know who do every little thing for their kids. Helicopter parenting is not just about being “hyper present;” it’s about the wrong kind of presence.
Some parents are like that because they’re neurotic and refuse to allow their children to learn and grow. And sadly, some women are like that because they feel guilty about the choice they made – a very valid one- to work inside the home as stay at home caregiver. To justify their choice, they perform Herculean acts of parenting so the world understands just how imperative it is that they be home. Little Johnny would die if the crusts weren’t cut off his sandwich. The next thing you know, little Johnny is in college and his mom is calling his professors when he gets a bad grade.
Richard Mullendore, professor at the University of Georgia has an interesting theory regarding the manifestation of helicopter parenting. He blames it on the pervasiveness of cell phones – which he refers to as “the world’s longest umbilical cord.”
Antipodal to helicopter parenting, free range parenting is empowering your child towards independence and allowing them to make mistakes. It’s evaluating the perceived danger of a situation logically and making decisions based on facts. It’s rendering kids susceptible to the lumps and bumps of childhood and raising kids who walk around smart, not scared.
With regards to allowing your child to play outside unsupervised, walk to school, etc, what are the facts? Lenore Skenazy referenced statistics she obtained from the Department of Justice.
1. U.S. violent crime rates have plummeted almost 50% since they peaked in 1992.
2. Of all children under age 5 murdered from 1976-2005:
31% were killed by fathers
29% were killed by mothers
23% were killed by male acquaintances
7% were killed by other relatives
3% were killed by strangers
3. Number of children killed each year by family members and acquaintances: About 1000
Number of children abducted in “stereotypical kidnappings” (kidnapped by a stranger for ransom or for sexual purposes and/or transported away) in 1999, the most recent year for which we have statistics: 115.
Number of those children killed by their abductor: About 50.
Murders of children by abductors constitute less than one half of 1% of all murders in America.
Crime rates, in fact, are down. It is only our perception of crime – a fear based perception – that is up.
Interestingly enough, 200,000 kids under 14 are injured every year in car accidents. Doesn’t stop parents from piling 6 of them in a minivan for soccer practice.
I do not want my child unsafe. Nor do I want to make light of the horrific things that can happen to children, to anyone. The instinct to protect our children is biological. I personally morph into scary Mama Bear if I think Little Dude is in any kind of danger.
But I do not want my child growing up fearful. I’ll not have him live a life borne out of the constant onslaught of horror stories brought on by the media – stories whose purpose I question. Are they to inform? Or to quench our appetite for the macabre and disturbing; to confirm that our children are in danger the moment we take them out of the bubble wrap?
This year, I did not succumb to societal pressure, nor an anticipated trickle down backlash against my son. Little Dude walks himself to and from school everyday. And no- I do not stand at the door, watching him walk. I kiss him goodbye and sit at my kitchen table, coffee in hand, and take that great leap of faith.
In his book Protecting the Gift, child-safety expert Gavin De Becker explains that compared to a stranger kidnapping, “a child is vastly more likely to have a heart attack, and child heart attacks are so rare that most parents (correctly) never even consider the risk.”
So let all the other mothers in the neighborhood judge me. Maybe they ought to think about that heart attack statistic, and take the artery clogging Ho Hos and potato chips out of their kids lunches, and mind their own damn business.
Would you let your child walk to school alone, or play outside unsupervised? What do you think of what Lenore Skenazy did? Is the world really that much more dangerous than in was when we were growing up?
Talk to me. I’m listening.