Last weekend, my five-year-old asked to show her elementary school to a dear friend, a ten-year-old visiting from out of town. The girls wanted to walk to the school themselves. The ten-year-old is the most responsible kid I know, an independent sort who walks to school each day on her own through her New York City neighborhood. I trust and adore this girl and know that she would make smart decisions, keeping an eye out for my daughter.
Yet, I hesitated.
My daughter’s suburban elementary school is a ten-minute walk (seven if you avoid getting distracted by squirrels). Each school day, we walk there together, along with her brother, crossing only one street at an intersection with a clearly marked crosswalk and easy sightlines in all directions. Together, the girls would be safe; I wasn’t worried.
But, still, I hesitated.
Long gone are the days when my brother and I, especially my brother, would disappear for hours in the woods behind our house to play and explore, without our mother hovering about or even knowing exactly where we were. We were 1970s and 1980s kids, raised with lots of love, not a lot of television, and a push to be outside and be happy. Today, you might call that free-range parenting. I don’t raise my kids the same way my parents raised me.
Oh, I love my kids the same, and I restrict their television viewing, suggesting books instead, just like my mom did. I also want my kids to be outside, exploring, learning, and having fun. But I’m more aware of where they are at all times. I don’t let them go off by themselves. I worry a lot more than my parents did. I admit it: I hover a bit—maybe even a bit more than my husband would like. Free range describes the eggs I buy at Whole Foods, not the way I parent.
I parent differently because the world is different. The world, although statistics show it’s safer in the United States now then when I was growing up, is scarier. Thanks to the media and our overly connected lives, we know more about bad things, about bad people.
So, I hesitated when my daughter and her friend wanted to go for a walk. I hesitated because of fear, I think. And, that’s not how I want to parent at all. I can’t—I shouldn’t—let fear dictate my decisions; I’ll end up raising kids who are fearful, too, not confident in themselves.
It’s not just parents who worry; nonparents are concerned, too. “I don’t know how parents aren’t having anxiety attacks all of the time,” one of my coworkers, a single woman in early 30s without kids, said to me recently. “The world’s pretty scary.”
As a result of all of this fear, our kids are accompanied everywhere by parents or caregivers, hyper scheduled by hyper vigilant adults. If you break from the pack, if you deviate from that norm, you run the risk of being labeled a bad parent….or worse. We’ve all heard the story of the Meitivs in Maryland, a family that has been under investigation by Child Protective Services, accused of neglecting their children for letting them play unsupervised in a local park and walk home down a busy street without an adult. I don’t know the Meitivs, and I don’t know all of the intimate details of their case, but the questions their story raises are deeply troubling.
Their story forces, for all of us, to review of how we parent, and how we judge the parenting of others. When does concern for a child’s welfare become invasive? When does our instinct to look out for one another become too much? How do we look out for one another, when we no longer know our neighbors as well as we did when we were children ourselves? How can the “it takes a village” concept work when our villages are changing? How do reconcile what can be seen as conflicting values and approaches to childrearing? How do we give our kids space to figure things out on their own? How do you manage fear in a world where fearmongering is so prevalent? How do we take the leap and trust in ourselves and our kids?
I’m left with so many questions, so much uncertainty, so much hesitancy about the best way to let my children develop their independence in a world where independence is defined differently for each community and each family in that community. I know my peers are facing this, too. One neighbor whose son is now in the third grade, the age kids in our town are permitted to walk and bike to school on their own, has been struggling about whether or not to let him do so. Their son is more than ready to go it alone, though, and he chafes against their well-intentioned concern, not understanding their uncertainty.
Perhaps we should follow the advice David Mogolov recently shared in The Boston Globe: “Ultimately, parents need to be given the latitude to make their own decisions, based on their children, their neighborhood, and their beliefs. Different communities pose different dangers. Different children react differently to stress and responsibility. A child’s temperament is as much a factor in their independence as their neighborhood.”
After much discussion and after pushing back against my own hesitation, I let my daughter and her friend make the short walk to our elementary school. I trusted them, and they saw that. They left armed with a cell phone and parental entreaties to be careful. They didn’t stay long—the sunny spring day turned cold and windy—but they came back jubilant, proud of their adventure on their own.