Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How Much Freedom Do Kids Need?

A month ago, my eleven and a half year old daughter and I were enjoying a lazy Saturday at home. I don't remember who had the genius idea, but we agreed she could walk up to our local grocery store--a block and a half away--to buy herself a treat and me an iced mocha from Starbucks (I have an obsession, but that's another story!). Anyway, she had been gone for about ten minutes when my phone rang. It was her and she was frantic. Apparently, a man had approached her at the stoplight--in full daylight with tons of people around--and asked her her name, where she lived, how old she was, and when she would be home. He then invited himself over to "play".

Fortunately for all of us, my kid has a good head on her shoulders. As soon as he asked where she lived her alarm went off and she lied. I met her at the grocery store within five minutes and comforted a very upset child. The police came to take a description of the man, then gave me what I would describe as a "mini lecture" on how this is a different day in age. Nobody said it, but the implication was that a good parent would have never allowed her child to walk, at 3 p.m. on a weekend day, to a public place a block and a half away from her house.

Of course, my first reaction was panic and thankfulness. We have only lived in our area for a short time, but it's a nice area--there'a a beautiful park nearby, the grocery store a block away, brand new condos everywhere. But as I began to blame myself for what happened to my child, I had to stop and think--what am I doing?

Since when, in what world, did it become negligent to let your tween walk a block and a half from your house to the grocery store?

I've written lately quite a bit about autonomy--letting kids develop their own ability to self-regulate and to take on tasks independently. Did I make the wrong call? These types of situations are arising across the nation, with children of different ages. At what age should a child be allowed to play unsupervised in his back yard? When is a child old enough to walk unsupervised to a friend's house on the same block?

I don't know. I don't have the answers. It's interesting to me how vague most state statutes are on this issue--most states consider children old enough to stay home when they're able to do so successfully. Huh? Talk about leaving your legal options open for prosecution of parents.

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  1. >>>These types of situations are arising across the nation, with children of different ages.

    Is that actually true? Or is the actual uptick just in it being widely reported and discussed? Do you have FBI statistics (or from some other reputable source)? I read lots of stuff where people say that this problem is getting worse, but it's always in a vague "They say" way. Is it possible that it's an urban legend that the problem is getting worse, and what we're actually experiencing is a 24-hour news cycle that has time to give us upsetting stories from every corner of the globe?

    When I was a kid, I was exposed to multiple times and had a few experiences that, if they happened today, people would go bananas about. One teacher and at least two neighbors would probably be on sex predator lists if those things happened now.

    I don't think a jerk bothering your kid means you made the wrong call. Not at all. She knew what to do to protect herself on the off-chance that someone bugged her out on a people-filled sidewalk, and she did it successfully. This is a victory, not a defeat.

  2. Here's an interesting article about the history of public anxiety re: child abductions and other nasty things.


  3. I wouldn't have thought that would be too big of a deal! I'm glad she thought quickly enough to make up a lie!

  4. Hey Allison, what I was referring to is numerous reports I've read lately about police confronting parents over this kind of thing, not kids actually being in more danger. It kind of brings up the whole free range vs. helicopter parent debate, doesn't it? I'm far from free-range but good lord, I'm not helicopter-y enough to stalk the poor kid! She's eleven for goodness sakes! I actually read an interesting article--I'll try to link it tomorrow--about judges rewarding this kind of helicopter behavior even though it's clearly to the detriment of their children, because it indicates more involvement in a child's life...so the parent who stalks their child gets custody, whereas the parent who gives them space loses it. Interesting to think about where we're going as a society with that.

  5. Cindy, I know--I was shocked when one of the officers started lecturing me. I consider myself a pretty protective parent. The worst part of it was how it scared her--she was scared to leave the house for a few days after, but I made her do it anyway--lovingly and a bit at a time. She now happily goes to the same market (accompanied with her brother) and hasn't had any problems.

  6. How wonderful that your daughter was taught the skills to be safe in a scary situation and that she recalled those skills. That is what scares me today about parenting; we're so overprotective with our children that we're not teaching them skills to live in the real world. It is a hard balance to find between overprotective and not protective enough but it's worth the work.

  7. >>>we're so overprotective with our children that we're not teaching them skills to live in the real world

    Yes, that's what I think is the worst part about helicoptering. Often it's a lazy shortcut. It takes less time (and less worry!) to just run the kids up to the library in the car than to walk there with them a few times, teaching them the route, reinforcing the rules about what one does and doesn't say to people one doesn't know, etc. I almost think that helicoptering is less like parenting and more like babysitting.

  8. Amanda, I agree with you. I think a huge part of parenting is teaching children practical life skills and giving them a chance to practice those skills at appropriate times. How good of a parent would I be if I didn't teach my child to walk to the store and make a purchase on her own? What if my kid doesn't learn how to put on his shoes or his coat because it's easier for me? Or what if he has a problem with his friends and I take care of it...every time? How successful is he going to be as an adult?