Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Free Range Kids: Would You Leave Your 7 Year Old Alone At The Park?

Part of what we do as parents is decide acceptable risk. This is so easy when they are small, an almost cruel set up to the later years when our decision making includes the biology of Uncle Gary's drug addiction, teenage drivers crash more frequently with teen passengers, you CAN get pregnant when on your period, the damage they will do to themselves vs. the damage done to them by others and other various ongoing and mind boggling considerations. It's much easier to decipher risk/reward when it comes to crying it out, what foods are best and other small people subjects. Except.

Except when it comes to their safety.

My family on both sides is Southern. I was born in Jackson, Mississippi. Hello, Maggie May.  Growing up, my own parents each had the respective run of their neighborhoods, including both the small and modest homes up and down the tree thick streets and the vast expanses of woods around. My Grandparent's house had a wonderful backyard- a vast green stretch of tall grasses that abruptly ended in a line of trees, and a path, straight through. My mother and her brother and sisters ran through town, ran through the forests and streams and played in the soggy green and blue lakes. I've heard many stories about childhood romps and games from my mother and Uncles, and the year we moved back and lived in Mississippi- I was ten- I found myself sliding from ropes into large mud puddles, jumping off hot tin roofs and splashing in the backyard stream. Like my mother's childhood, there were rules, but no adult to enforce them. One of the rules all the kids in my mom's neighborhood knew was to never, ever play in the abandoned rowboat floating on the lake. Sure. My mother's brother, David, was fourteen when he and two friends made their way to the lake on a sweltering Jackson afternoon.  My Dakota resembles David- the Gardner jawline, the large blue eyes bright with intelligence, carved cheekbones and high lines of ear and forehead. I've seen pictures of David at that age, practically moving off the page with boyish exuberance, lust for life, beauty. He wore long shorts and high socks and had a proper short haircut. His shirt was tucked in and his belt slim. He took off to the lake with his friends, and played in the rowboat, and he drowned in that Mississippi water.

I spent my Grandmother's life wondering if she blamed herself. She wouldn't talk about David. The few times his name came up, she began crying silently, nodding her head 'no'. I don't know if she accepted that children all played free range those days, if she believed she had any other option in that wild Mississippi forest. I don't know if she thought it had been an acceptable risk. I know it wasn't an acceptable loss.

Playing in a lake is a clear and controlled choice- compared to the hotbed of information we have today on the possible dangers to our children, it is downright simplistic. It is the nature of our society today- gobsmacked with information, statistics and you-tube accountings of all and every type of experience- to talk about everything, and it is also the nature of our society today to be unable to put anything in perspective. So we are convinced that brain eating amoebas are as relevant a danger as car crashes.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of the blog and book  Free Range Kids and became a nationally recognizable name when she was infamously published that she let her seven year old son ride the subway alone.  Recently she has been surrounded by more controversy over her newest off-shoot, Take Your Kids To The Park and Leave Them There This movement is a day in a community where parents bring their children ages 7 and up to a local park and leave them, alone, until they come home on their own violition. The idea behind Skenazy's park day, according to her own press, is to promote activity, group play and lessen the 'real risk' of obesity, not obsess on the highly unlikely risks that something sinister will happen to your child. On Dr. Drew, when asked about the possibility of abduction or child on child molest (one of the most common forms of molest) Skenazy was frustrated- " ..that every time children go outside and play it has to be something sleazy.." Dr. Drew countered that in his line of work, he can't help but notice how common molest and sexual assault is.  When Skenazy pointed out that " 90% of sexual molests happen in the home " Dr. Drew quickly clarified that the actual statistic does not say 'in the home' but says ' happens by a person that the child knows.' This can be a person in the home- or a tutor, a friendly adult seen every week at the ice cream shop or a relative. Skenazy's final point was that we let our children ride in automobiles daily- the number one cause of childhood death- and accept that risk. Why, she argued, isn't the less likely chance our child would be molested or abducted a reasonable, barely statistically significant, risk?

You're asking the wrong person, I thought, sitting on my bed next to my ten year old daughter and 17 month old toddler. Meaning- me. If you are asking me, I'd tell you I'm neurotic about car crashes and think about them more often than I care to admit. I hate letting my children go in large steel cages that fly through the air next to other large steel cages driven by pretty much anyone- drunks, elderly people who shouldn't be driving, teenagers with no experience- it's insane that these people are allowed to operate heavy speeding machines next to my children, and yours. But I still let them go in cars. I still drive. And I keep my mouth shut about my fears, and just tell my kids to buckle up. Why?

Because it's an acceptable risk. Because modern life depends on car rides. Jobs, college, family and friends, hobbies- most everything that has meaning to us also includes, one way or another, driving. Unless we are the small percentage who live in towns without freeways, or are Amish. I want my children to live a rich, full life, and driving is inexorably woven into the fabric of our entire society.

But going to the park alone at seven? Is not. 

I can teach them about independence one small step at a time. I can let them play 'alone' without sending them quite that far away. Moderation is possible. I know that sexual assault and abuse is much more common than is reflected in the statistics, I know this in my gut. I know it from a lifetime of listening to friends- both male and female- recount their experiences of child molest to me; some stories small and upsetting and some enormous and grotesquely horrible. These things happen all the time. How far an assault goes is directly affected by the access. When I was right around seven, I was in a bookstore with my mom and sister. I stepped away from my mom and sister and walked to an aisle by myself, browsing the books. A man approached me, with a brown mustache and tight jeans and a shirt tucked in, and he quickly and briefly cupped my vagina through my pants. I stood perfectly still. I was not sure of what had just happened. The man smiled at me, and did it one more time. This time, I began walking toward my mother, and the man walked away. I never saw him again.  I'm glad I wasn't there alone.

What do you think?

PS
As I work on replacing this commenting system with one that works, I have had a few people tell me that if they load the entire Flux Capacitor page, vs just this one post, they see the comment button and can comment. FWIW. xo

Allison the Meep said...

Hey! It worked! Loading the entire blog instead of just the one post made it so that I could comment finally.

I am terrified of cars. How more of us don't die in them is crazy to me. The things my brain hangs on to are so unhealthy, and I'm constantly trying to push my fears of what could hurt my children out of my mind.

And I am most certainly not okay with leaving young children on their own in public. There are far too many twisted people in the world for me to take such a risk with the most important people my life will ever know.

Leslie said...

I'm pretty free range, Maggie. I'd say it depends on the location of the park. My sister had a park we could see from her house. We often let our boys (who were about 8 and 9) play there alone. I say we could see it, but we weren't looking. I used to let my 11 and 12 year old boys walk to the library alone and play on the computers there--about a half mile walk. The thing is, the world is actually LESS dangerous now than it was when kids routinely did these things--that's statistically provable. However, we all have our issues and we have been very strict regarding our teenagers and driving!

Cheney Giordano said...

I am also in the camp of moms who would rather not take risks for the sake of taking risks as a learning experience. I get that the blogger at Free Range Kids is trying to call attention to the fact that nowadays, as compared to when I was a child 30 some years ago, the world hasn't gotten as dangerous as everyone and the media makes it out to be. I also get that kids have to be kids - they have to push their own boundaries to grow, they have to explore the world and take tumbles and falls and make mistakes... but to leave my child alone like that? Never. Never, ever. Especially not just to prove some point.

This may be off topic, but a good conversation starter: I have friends who let their two year olds play around hot stoves and climb up and down stairs without supervision under the umbrella of "Well, if she burns herself she'll learn not to do it again," or "If she falls she will think twice about climbing around," and I think - why do you want your kids to be injured to learn?? What's wrong with you??? But maybe that's just me...

Angella Lister said...

Here's the thing: If there are relatively few instances of children being abducted while playing in parks, that is precisely because very few children are left to play alone there. I know i am a paranoid mother, but i engaged in the game of acceptable risk daily, determinedly, teeth gritted, praying every minute. but to leave my 7 year old alone in the park on a day when it is advertised that 7 year olds will be alone in the park, and to sit in my house until whatever time my child wanders home, not knowing what and who and where and if and when, well, it's just not an acceptable risk by my lights. i wouldn't do it.

Bethany said...

I am with you Maggie... When 4 out of 5 of my female friends all have experienced some form of assault/abuse before the age of 16, I don't agree that anything is safer. Our little community has lost 3 children (that I know of) to sexual predators in the last 10 years. The Megan's Law web page is full of folks in our neighborhood that may or may not do our children harm. The folks I am most worried about are the ones that have not been caught yet and they have not had an X carved on their forehead to label them.

Thing is, with sexual assault... you can't take it back, there are no do overs. It does not simply scab over and disappear. It is there... forever.

Child molestation aside... leaving a small child (say under 11) in a park alone is down right irresponsible. There are a bazillion variables. Risk vs. benefit analysis is part of being a parent. I don't buy into the Helicopter vs. Free-range parenting.

Amelia said...

It did work!
NEVER would I let my 7 year old play alone in the park. I do not judge those who do, (Right at this moment at least, let me find some 7 year olds alone in the park and I may change my tune.) but especially working at a group home for 10 years, and knowing what adults do to children, and then what children do to themselves and others? Not gonna happen.

Caroline said...

I can't imagine letting my 6 year old daughter (who is in kindergarden now) play outside by herself in a park without my supervision next year. When I look back and try to remember things from that age, I can't really remember much--which leads me to believe that it's not because it was so long ago (I'm only 35) but because maybe, just maybe my brain was not fully developed yet. And most certainly my frontal lobe (the portion of the brain responsible for decision making) was not fully formed. That's scientifically proven.
So, no. I wouldn't let my 7 year old play at a park/playground without supervision. My children have lots of creative freedom and freedom to express themselves and share ideas and play, play, play but I like to keep my eye on them in public places and when playing with other small children. That's just me.
xo
p.s. Maggie, I was raised in the south too and things were pretty free range with us as well. Thankfully, I was never harmed, but I did witness some pretty "off" things that I'm sure wouldn't have happened if the parents were around.

Catherine said...

I think your response is perfect. You summed it right up. There are risks that we take and permit our children to take because not taking them (such risks as riding in a car, for example), ensures that their lives will be far more limited in very essential areas. Romping in the park alone and making ones way home does not have that high level of postitive results--it's a feel good thing,mainly offset by some nasty possibilities.

I think that Free Range Kids advocate is way off. I ignore her ramblings.

Petit fleur said...

I think this woman is totally diluted if she thinks leaving a 7 year old at a park alone is acceptable. I can't even waste my energy on all the reasons why. Most of them obvious.

I'm really sorry about your uncle. It was a different time, and I've heard other similar stories of that time period. It' heartbreaking.

I also find it interesting the timing this woman chose to do this park thing. You know it is the 33rd anniversary of the kid that disappeared in NY... forget the name but he was one of the first children to appear on Milk cartons. Apparently someone has come forward saying they had something to do with it.

Sondra said...

We have a park two blocks from our apartment and we're there at least 4 days a week. It's on a busy street but I've seen so many things happen in just a matter of seconds that I wouldn't risk leaving my 8 year old there on his own.

Typically, we'll set up a blanket and have a mini picnic, leaving the stroller there and letting the kids run around the park where at least I can see them, but I would not feel comfortable leaving them on their own.

I'm not worried about strangers or adults abducting them, but of simple accidents or injuries that could take place that would require immediate assistance, or at least, comforting but then again, I enjoy watching and observing my kids at play, even from afar. It's something I never grow tired of.

Erika McDaniel said...

Bad things can happen anywhere anytime. There is a difference to me between an accident, and something happening because of creepy people. Unfortunately, while there have always been predators and molesters, because of the cycle of perpetuation (meaning victims of this type of thing often grown up to be the perpetrators of such horrible acts) - I do feel that it is more prevalent now. Plus, people prone to that stuff seek out places where there are lots of children - i.e. a playground. I can't tell you how often I see a grown man sitting by himself at a playground, or a mall play structure, just watching. No kid belongs to him, he's nobody's dad, or uncle, or grandfather. I'm not a fearful person, but my mommy intuition kicks in and I can't believe how long they will sit, and watch, little ones. I can't imagine my 7 year old being at a park alone - ever. Won't happen under my watch.

Lori said...

I'm right there with you. I absolutely would not allow my 7 year old to be left alone at a park. I don't think it's safe in this day and age, and especially not in Southern California.

Your post made me think back to my childhood, when I was able to run free and play in my neighborhood. To walk to the local little league baseball field to watch a game. To walk home from school by myself without fear. Times have changed. Life has changed.

Do I wish that my kids could feel that same feeling of security and independence? Sure. I wish they could. Did bad things happen back in the day? Sure, I'm sure they did. However, I feel there is more of a possibility of something happening in this day and age. I'll continue to guard my little ones like a mother hen, thanks you. : )

Lone Star Ma said...

I think that lady's kid was nine when she let him ride the subway.

Sexual assault is verrrry common, but it is very rarely from a stranger. It is almost always mom's boyfriend or a stepfather, although there are always going to be tragic exceptions. I'm known as a pretty overprotective mom, but I almost never worry about that one, where strangers are concerned. My worries about it take the form of "if I ever divorce or lose my husband, I will never, ever have another man in our home until the girls are out of it." Even though I had a wonderful stepfather and have known a few other wonderful stepfathers, I don't think that's an acceptable risk. That said, I would not leave my seven-year-old at the park. I do let her play alone in the front yard between my house and the house of her friends, across the street and three doors down (even though a pedophile moves in and out of the old lady's house on the other side of her friends' house - he has been around for years with no problems and knows we are all ready to kill him at a second's notice). I don't however, let the kids roam the neighborhood out of sight until adolescence and then I need lots of communication and boundaries and checking in about it.

I always check in about ownership of guns and how they are stored before I let my kids stay at someone's house as I think that is a real risk down here. I started letting my eldest walk home from school when she was 13. At 16, I still don't let her get in cars with teen drivers at all, or adults I don't know, and I don't let her drive because she still trips over her feet.

I definitely think these choices get harder and harder and harder to make as the kids get older.

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