Would you let your 9 year old take the subway alone? In New York City? This mom did: Free Range Kids
I know that there are a lot of bad things out there today. I know that children are kidnapped, molested, murdered. Could it be that we hear about these things because they are rare? We balance the tightrope between being a helicopter parent and teaching our children independence. We put an imaginary bubble around them when they leave the house, but there is still that nagging fear that doesn’t go away until they are safely back. I have a superstition: if I imagine all the horrible things that could happen, then they won’t happen. So let me tell you, I can imagine just about anything. The other day my youngest daughter went out to ride her bike. When I went to find her, she was gone. I looked and looked, asking people if they had seen her. After 30 minutes, I got that cold, blood draining feeling that something awful had happened. I was just on the brink of calling the police when we found her bike outside a friend’s house. It was a toss-up between strangling her and hugging her till her eyes bulged. We had the “stranger danger” talk and the “let me know where you are at all times” talk.
I remember riding my bike alone, in Tokyo, when I was seven. We lived in a suburb called Nishihara-cho (Minato-ku) outside the city proper. My friend and I would ride all the way to the machi (the commercial part of the town, where the shops were) alone to buy candy and trinkets. I remember the rail crossing, and waiting for the train to pass. I would ride all through neighborhoods, passing construction sites and walled compounds. I once passed a man who I thought was urinating against a wall, but as an adult I realize that he was doing something else. I used to hang out at the baseball field across the street from our house, and one of the players took me for a ride on his motorcycle.
In Belgium, my sister had a moped. I wasn’t old enough, legally, to ride it, but I did. I used to take off and ride through the back roads of Beersel, to my friend’s house in Rhode St. Genèse. I rode along isolated trails in the woods. I rode to the local convenience store to buy candy (and, I’m ashamed to say, shoplift my first pack of cigarettes). Eleven years old, on a motorized vehicle, alone. That shocks me today.
When I was sixteen, I was given the great privilege of flying alone from the states, after home leave, to Manila. I even arranged a stop in Hawaii to visit a friend who had moved there. A year later I flew alone to Brussels to visit old friends, then to England to meet my mom. At 18 I flew from Singapore to London alone, getting stranded on the way, in the middle of the night, in Amsterdam. (That trip involved the Dutch national soccer team, which, if not for the language barrier, I would have gotten to know better!) I had to find a hotel and transportation to the airport, and was quite proud of myself that I did it all without falling off the earth. In fact by the time I turned 18 I had circumnavigated the globe twice, and landed along the way in exotic places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Dubai.
Is the rest of the world different from the states? Is there less crime, fewer incidents of kidnapping, less danger? I know that in some countries children as young as 6 ride public transportation to school. In this country a family who did that would be reported to the Department of Human Services. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, the difference between our “normal” and the “normal” abroad. Maybe it is a parenting style. My mom used to “make” us do things on our own: I would be the only kid walking to school in the rain (with galoshes, rain coat and umbrella) while the other kids were being driven. It was raining so hard once, even the crossing guard wasn’t there! One time mom “made” me go eat alone in a restaurant (while she shopped in the adjacent mall). It was terrifying, but I’m proud of myself and thank her for doing it. When mom was asked to join a school carpool once, she said, “No, indeed, they will be walking!” The other parents were astonished.
Growing up as I did taught me an important lesson: worrying about something is usually far worse that the actual thing itself. I learned that fear is not necessarily a bad thing, but overcoming it is a good thing. Knowing about danger and how to avoid it is vital. Learning that you are capable of navigating through bumps in the road is a skill that everyone needs to function in this life. Those who can’t are crippled and eternally dependent on others. Is it scary to let your child learn these lessons? Yes indeed. But it is even scarier not to.