If you sit next to me on an airplane, you’ll see a calm, slightly annoyed-looking woman, probably wearing headphones or trying to fall asleep (which may just be a ploy not to talk to you, seatmate; nothing personal, I’m sure you’re very nice – I just hate small talk). I won’t be popping anti-anxiety meds or ordering wine or gripping the armrest. I will look relaxed. I might get a little work done or dig into a novel.
Inside, my brain is replaying videos from every airplane crash I’ve ever seen on the news. Thinking about all of the things that can go wrong. Wondering what it would feel like if the plane fell from the sky, what I would think about until I passed out. What it would feel like if the plane blew apart. If it crashed in the ocean and started filling with water. If it crashed on landing and started filling with smoke. How my family would get the news. How they would react.
Aren’t you glad I didn’t want to talk to you, seatmate?
But I’m on the plane. I didn’t alter my travel plans just because I was scared. I don’t let my legs shake. I don’t panic and demand that I be let off of the plane. Deep breaths. Mind over matter. I calm myself with statistics. If I survived the car ride to the airport, which was statistically much much more dangerous than flying, I will be fine in the air.
Sure, I could have taken a train. Or driven. I definitely feel more relaxed in a car, it’s more familiar. But flying is quicker. More convenient. Safer. And cheaper, when you factor in what my time is worth. Flying was the logical choice. I made the smart choice, despite my fears.
Raising my kids is a lot like that. Every day I make decisions that make me queasy. Every morning I close the door behind my kids and picture them getting snatched by a pedophile, or hit by a bus, or stabbed in a mugging, or trapped in a fire, or…or…or…
But I shove them out the door anyway. Because my job as a parent is to teach them how to get along in the world. And at some point, that lesson has to move on to the next level. Getting shown something is never as instructive as trying it for yourself, and making mistakes, and figuring things out, and gaining confidence.
So, I take deep breaths. I calm myself with statistics. I remind myself that my children are smart and capable.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately trying to defend parents like these on Facebook. It’s a really stupid way to spend my time, but I do it anyway, because I hold on to some small grain of hope that I will change someone’s mind. That someone will listen to my arguments, look up some statistics, and maybe, just maybe, let their kid go to a playground alone. Or walk to school. Or play outside with friends.
The arguments against doing those things are almost always one of the following:
Times have changed. The world is a more dangerous place now than when we were kids. This is simply not true. You would think that since this argument is so easy to strike down, it would go away. But it doesn’t. It is the battle cry of overprotective parents everywhere. If you take a look at statistics, it’s clear that the world is not a more dangerous place for kids.
But if you take a look at the evening news or the internet, the world is a very scary place full of child abductions and terrorist attacks. Those things are news because they are rare and exciting, not because they are common. But they dominate the news. They sell. They make money for the news organizations. They get clicks for the websites. And they fool parents into thinking that the world has changed, when it hasn’t. The coverage has. It has gotten bigger, it has gotten louder, and it is all designed to scare the shit out of you in order to make money for media companies.
My child could get abducted. Yes, she could. Technically, that is a true statement. As is, “I could win the lottery tomorrow.” Which is also, technically, a true statement. But statistically, neither thing is likely to happen. Sure, both things are going to happen to somebody. About 100 children are kidnapped each year in stereotypical stranger kidnappings, and only about half of those come home. Is it insignificant that about 50 kids a year are kidnapped and killed in this country? Absolutely not. That is a huge tragedy for 50 families and 50 precious children, and I’m not in any way trying to dismiss the absolute horror of those cases.
But if looked at statistically, those children represent fewer than .00007% of all of the kids in the US. Where else in your life do you make major decisions based on what happens to a teeny teeny tiny fraction of the population? If you do actually make decisions that way, then you should know that you have a phobia, which is by definition an irrational fear. Basing your parenting decisions on irrational fears doesn’t sound very healthy, does it?
Parents who let their children go out by themselves are just lazy. I will be the first person to admit that I’m lazy. But that has nothing to do with my decision to let my kids go out on their own. Sure, getting to stay inside the warm house as they get themselves out to school in the morning is a great benefit, but it was not a deciding factor in my decision. How do I know this? Because if I were doing this to be lazy, I would have made them get themselves to school years before they were ready.
I can’t judge whether other parents are lazy or not just from news stories. When my son was a toddler, struggling to climb up the slide at the playground, and I was sitting on a bench reading a newspaper, I probably looked lazy. But I didn’t care. If my son wanted to climb up the slide instead of using the steps, he needed to do it himself. It took him weeks. And he cried, and screamed for my help, and I calmly told him that he could do it. And when he did, he was prouder than I’ve ever seen anyone be about anything. He looked like he had just conquered Everest. And in his little world, he had.
I saw that grit and determination again when he learned how to ride a bike and a Shred Sled. I see it still when he solves difficult math problems or when he’s learning how to play new music. Is he like that because I made him climb by himself, because I don’t help him much with things? I guess I’ll never know. I’m sure that some of it was innate. But I do know that I didn’t hurt him by making him do things for himself. I taught him how to struggle and not give up.
And yes, every time I don’t do something for one of my kids, I get to be a little bit lazier. But don’t confuse a benefit with a cause, and don’t slap the “lazy” label on strangers. Kids simply don’t benefit from having everything done for them, for getting help when they don’t really need it, from being watched all of the time. Don’t confuse energy and good intentions with superior parenting.
It’s just not worth the risk. Risk/reward calculations are a tricky thing. Is there a risk with letting your child walk to school alone? Sure. But what is the risk of not letting your child walk to school alone? Or go to a playground? Or go to the movies with friends? Or go to a public bathroom without you standing outside of the door? In other words, what is the risk in not letting your child figure things out and learn how to handle life without you standing by to rescue him?
I’ve spoken to friends who work at colleges and universities, and it isn’t pretty out there. Roommate squabbles that should be handled between roommates now get blown out of proportion and officials have to get involved. Parents call professors arguing to get grades changed. Kids freak out over things that shouldn’t be a big deal. And I’m not talking about things I’ve read, I’m talking about stories from people I know. The climate has changed, and not for the better. Kids are running to mom when they should be struggling a little and trying to work things out for themselves.
Besides, you do much riskier things every day. The leading cause of death for children is car crashes – not when they’re crossing a street by themselves, but when they are passengers. The leading cause of non-fatal injuries in kids is from falls, and most of those happen in their own homes. There is nothing intrinsically dangerous about letting your child walk outside, with or without you. You just think there is.
I owe it to my child to keep her as safe as possible. Well, you’re not doing that in other ways, so don’t claim that as a reason to not let her go out on her own. If you live in a house with stairs, if your child is ever near water, if you have anything in your house that is poisonous, if you allow your child to ride in cars, then you are not keeping your child as safe as possible.
Do you still cut her grapes in half even though she’s ten? Let her eat popcorn? Hot dogs? Chicken with bones in it? Children way past toddlerhood have choked to death on all of those things.
You’re simply not keeping your child as safe as possible, you’re just drawing a line where you feel comfortable. And it probably doesn’t match up in any way to what the realistic dangers are.
My child could get lost or hurt and I won’t be there. When I was a kid I would take off on my bike and go places – softball practice, a friend’s house, or just off for a ride. I have a terrible sense of direction, and I would get lost frequently. And when I did, I would ask someone for directions, and get back on track.
One time after school I ended up downtown without any money to get home, and I explained the situation to a stranger at the bus stop and asked for change.
Once I got hurt in a playground and the mom of a younger kid helped me clean out the cut in my hand.
If you have convinced yourself that the world is filled with child predators just waiting to snatch your children, then the prospect of your child asking a stranger for directions must be terrifying. But the world is actually full of good people. Or at least, people good enough that they are not going to grab your child.
The kids at the playground without parents will pick on my kid. If that happens, and it’s bad enough that your child actually comes home and tells you, then you can do something. But why are you assuming that it’s going to happen? Because that’s what you see happening now, when you’re there?
Kids don’t act the same when you’re not around. Sometimes that’s bad, sometimes that’s good. But you can’t assume that what happens when you’re ten feet away is going to happen when you’re half a mile away. Maybe it wasn’t actually a big deal, but your kid ran to you because you were close. Maybe you stepped in before the kids had a chance to figure it out. You just don’t know.
Yeah, well, my parents used to smoke and we didn’t wear seatbelts or helmets either. Do you want to bring those things back too? When I encounter this argument, I really just want to say “You’re a f#*king idiot.” This has to be the dumbest argument I’ve ever heard on this topic. There is no downside to wearing helmets and seatbelts and not smoking, unless maybe you’re a tobacco farmer.
We changed those behaviors because we had reason to. There is no good reason to keep kids under surveillance 24/7. There were no studies saying that kids shouldn’t walk to school alone anymore because it’s no longer safe. Instead, we all became more aware of (the small number of) missing children, and we started to obsess about it. We saw their faces on milk cartons and read stories online and watched people in the entertainment industry fixate those cases while trying to disguise it as news. We got scared. So we changed when there was no reason to.
How I raise my kid is none of your business. In many cases, this is true. If you want to raise your kid vegetarian or make him play baseball even though he doesn’t want to or ban her from listening to pop music because you think it’s evil, whatever. I have my opinions and I might give them. But those things don’t directly affect me and my kids.
There are some topics, though, where your actions do affect my child, so I talk about them. Loudly. Vaccinations are a topic I won’t stay quiet about since herd immunity can affect many other people, not just the kids who don’t get vaccinated. And childhood independence is another, because the rarity of independent kids is why we’re having this debate in the first place. When kids are walking to school and going to playgrounds alone and it’s just normal, parents don’t call the cops on other parents.
I know my child, and she wouldn’t be able to handle going out alone. You know what? This argument is probably true. The parents who write this are generally the ones who claim (brag?) to be helicopter parents who don’t let their kids out of their sight. So yes, if you haven’t raised your child to be independent, then no, she probably can’t handle it. At least not yet. That’s your fault, and has nothing to do with what other kids are ready for.
I do know my children, and I base my decisions on what I think they can reasonably handle. And so, probably, do the parents you read about on the news who let their children go places alone and leave their kids in a car while they run into a store.
Are all parents responsible people who have their children’s best interests at heart? Of course not. But we’re not talking about the obvious abuse cases, the kids left alone for long stretches of time with no food or supervision, kids given responsibility for younger siblings when they’re nowhere near ready, kids who are truly neglected. I can’t tell you exactly where the line is between neglect and independence, but I know it when I see it. And letting kids walk home from the park sure as hell isn’t it.
We’re talking about the parents who made judgment calls that you don’t happen to agree with. You can’t base those parents’ judgments on your own unprepared kids.
Just because a younger child is with an older sibling doesn’t mean that it’s OK to let them go out alone. Why? Because you say so? Older siblings have been looking after younger ones for ages without there being a problem. And the only problem now seems to be busybodies who believe that the appropriate response to someone not being in any danger is to call the police. We’re not talking about leaving a ten-year-old in charge of a younger kid for a week, right? Cooking meals and bathing? No, when this stuff hits the news it usually involves an older kid walking a younger sibling somewhere. Or sitting in a car together for ten minutes. If you really think that something terrible is likely to happen in that situation (not possible, but likely), then you live in a terrible world and I feel sorry for you. And I’m glad that you never called the cops on me, because apparently you had plenty of reason to.
My child is too precious to let anything happen to her. If you’re implying that you love your child more than I love mine, you’re an asshole. End of argument.
I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble. OK, this one has some merit. When we hear about parents giving their kids some independence these days, it’s usually because they got in trouble for it. They get in trouble with the police, Child Services is called, their children sometimes get taken away. The world judges and the children suffer. It’s a scary thing to contemplate when all you’re trying to do is raise your child using your own good judgment.
However, the only way to turn the tide is to do it. Send your kid out. Ask other parents to sent their kids out. When you hear parents judging that kind of thing (“Where are her parents? Why is she here alone? Should we do something?”) speak up and be the calm voice of reason. There is strength in numbers.
When it was time for my daughter to start walking to school without me, I tried to find another kid for her to walk with. I asked the parents who lived near us and got “no” every time. This, to me, was insane. But the only way for this to change is for me to send my kids out, and hope that other kids see it and ask their own parents why they’re not allowed to do the same thing. To help make it normal again.
Research what the laws are in your area for leaving children home alone and/or letting them go out on their own. Tell your children what to say if they are approached by another parent or a police officer asking if they’re lost.
I do what makes sense, even if it scares me. I do what the statistics say is the smart thing to do, even if it scares me. I use my best judgment based on my kids and what they’ve handled well in the past and what their strengths are. Even if it scares me. I get on that airplane and buckle my seatbelt and remind myself that virtually every person who has ever stepped onto a passenger jet has stepped off again safely.
Parenting is terrifying. It is the scariest thing I’ve ever done and likely will ever do. Handing control of important things over to someone whose diapers you’ve changed and tears you’ve dried does not feel natural. I lie in bed at night and think about all of the bad things that could happen to my kids. And I know that even if I raise them to be independent, that doesn’t mean something bad won’t happen any more than coddling them would. Bad things happen every day.
All I can do is give my kids the tools they need to thrive, send them out in to the world, accept that they will mess up, and hope that they will learn from it every time. The rest is out of my control.
Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s easy to say “I know I did the right thing because my child didn’t die today.” It’s a lot harder to say “I think I did the right thing because in 10 years my child is going to be better at handling life’s challenges.”