By K.J. Dell'Antonia
January 15, 2015
"...regardless of our fears, our children have to learn to walk alone sometimes, and age alone will not protect them from whatever dangers are out there."
|When is a walk a risk? Credit: K.J. Dell’Antonia|
How young were you when you first walked home from school alone? Or from the park? When you first ventured to the nearby QuikTrip or its equivalent? I can’t answer any of those questions, because I can’t actually remember not being able to do those things.
I do know that when I was 10, my mother let a friend and me take a city bus to the mall. We missed our stop, and wound up in downtown San Antonio, where I found a pay phone and called my mother, who came to get us.
It’s apparently of note that she was not arrested when she arrived.
The world is not more dangerous now than it was then. Most research suggests that if anything, it’s getting safer. Unless you’re a parent who believes children should be allowed as much independence as they’re ready for, in which case, things have become more dangerous for your family, and possibly far more frightening for your children.
After Danielle and Alexander Meitiv allowed their children — Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6 — to walk from a local park to their home, that danger became apparent. The children were stopped by the police and driven home (over the older child’s protests), and the family is now under investigation by the local Child Protective Services.
It’s tempting to delve further into the specifics of this. Where is the park? (Silver Spring, Maryland.) How busy a road? (Georgia Avenue — busy, with a number of businesses on it.) How prepared were the children? (They know the area well, say their parents, and worked up to a walk of this length with visits, together, to “a nearby 7-Eleven and to a library about three-quarters of a mile away.”)
But how much should those details matter? Very little, unless they’re extreme. Children walking alone, on busy streets, rural streets, hiking trails and suburban sidewalks, has gone from the norm to a cause for alarm over the course of just a few decades.
The 1979 book “Your Six-Year-Old: Loving and Defiant,” included the following on a milestone checklist for first-grade preparedness:
- Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to a store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?
- Can your child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman, where he lives?
First grade. Six years old. Less than four decades ago. This was not an imagined postwar “Leave It to Beaver” utopia, it was 1979. Sid Vicious was on trial for killing his girlfriend. The Hillside Strangler (who turned out to be two stranglers) was arrested in Los Angeles. “Deer Hunter” and “Alien” were in theaters. Jimmy Carter was attacked by a rabbit on a canoe trip.
And, all over the country, parents were allowing — expecting — their children to walk alone. For blocks. And, if they got lost, to ask for directions.
Not every parent. Not everywhere. But enough that a popular child-rearing manual (one of a series) took it for granted that a walk alone was a milestone a child should achieve.
Terrible things do happen to children, sometimes when they’re walking alone. And sometimes when they’re not. But regardless of our fears, our children have to learn to walk alone sometimes, and age alone will not protect them from whatever dangers are out there.
As the Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak put it, when we don’t encourage that independence — aren’t even permitted to encourage it — “not only are we placing unreasonable demands on parents to be with their children 24/7, but we are stunting the natural development that creates independent humans.”
You may question the specific circumstances here. If you do, if you must, don’t let that stop us from asking the other questions. When did we abandon this idea that our children should learn to move about in the world without our hovering presence, and what have we lost?
In her article for The Atlantic, “The Overprotected Kid,” Hanna Rosin noted that her 10-year-old had “probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult” in her whole life. Rosin was a little horrified; so am I.
My children walk alone. At 11, my oldest was charged with getting off the bus with his brother and sisters, then in first and third grades, getting them a snack at a shop in town and shepherding them to their after school art class. My 9-year-old walked from an after-school lesson to a local store for an ice cream and then sat outside waiting too be picked up once a week this fall; my 8-year-old rides his bike about a half mile down the road to a friend’s house when the weather permits.
It’s been a while — the temperatures are hovering around zero here — but this spring, they’ll get their freedom back in the woods, in town and when we travel. We encourage them to solo whenever they — and we — think they’re able.
I support the “free range kids” idea, but I don’t think of this as a philosophy. I just think of it as being a parent, making judgment calls about who is capable of what and when, and working to raise kids who won’t always be kids. Although the Meitivs welcome the “free range” label, it’s clear they’re working toward the same — or were, until Child Protective Services took an interest. After a meeting with its representatives next week, they hope to return to their way of raising their family.
“When do you think this independent child will emerge like a genie from a bottle?” Danielle Meitiv asked. “It takes time.” Time, and practice, and trust — trust in our children, and trust in parents’ judgment about those children.