Mother May I?

imgresI just got a huge box of my monthly mags from NYC.  Hours of fun.   The New Yorker has an article in it called Mother May I?  It is about some kids, 10 and 6, who were walking home alone in Silver Spring, MD.  Someone decided that it was not ok and called the cops.  The cops and another 5 patrol cars showed up at the home of the parents and essentially reprimanded the father.

There are so many questions I have here.  At what point did other people start deciding what is appropriate and what isn’t…aka stepping into another parents territory.  Also, when did parents stop letting kids be outside by themselves?

I remember when I was 6 years old I decided to run away.  My parents were fine with it.  I told them where I was going.  I walked up the street to the strip mall where there was also a gas station just a little father down the road.  I continued past the gas station and all of a sudden my Dad showed up.  He berated me for going past the mall and I reminded him that I was running away and could do anything I want.  I look back and actually give them a lot of credit for letting me take off at 6.  We were living in Los Angeles and it was on Roscomare Road.

The article describes a woman who started a group called the Free-Range Kids.  Her movement is committed to rolling back the helicopter era of parents.  I am all for it.  I am not so sure that our kids are in anymore danger than they were 30 years ago.  We just read more about it.  Now they actually have access to everyone with a phone so it might be safer.

Years ago when Jessica was 11 and in 6th grade I let her navigate the subway system for the first time by herself.   She had began navigating the street at the end of 5th grade. Her school has intramural basketball games and the kids would have to get permission to walk over to the high school to play.  Once they began that freedom it was the beginning of most of the kids walking the city and getting to and from school themselves.  It was empowering and life altering for them.

Jessica had something after school and her piano recital was on 57th street.  I don’t remember all the details but I decided to meet her there.  Logistically it made sense and she was ready.  She had a metro card.  We talked about it.  Fred showed up at the recital wondering where Jessica was and I told him she was going to meet us there.  He freaked.  I was confident.  Sure enough Jessica showed up with zero problems and after that she was pretty comfortable navigating her own town.

That was until she took the subway in 7th grade all the way out to the last stop on the L and called me to tell me that she probably shouldn’t be so cavalier about walking those streets solo particularly when it got dark.  She was right.  It was 2003.  She had become street savvy because she too was a Free-Range Kid.  How else do you learn?

Comments (Archived):

  1. Stuart Willson

    the parents were found guilty btw of “unsubstantiated” child neglect and now the CPS has a file on them for 5 years. what is craziest about this, beyond it being absurd that letting a child in the suburbs walk home by itself, is that by every metric children have never been safer and yet we are increasingly obsessed with shielding them from this perceived (though declining) danger.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Wow. Crazy parents unfortunately will create crazy children too

  2. Erin

    That’s what neighbors are for- to watch out for other families and their kids, not report them.

  3. pointsnfigures

    Free range kids. Hah. Our kids were similar. Hansel and Gretel would be described as free range kids if they were writing that fairy tale today. We dropped our daughter at the wrong place for a bar mitzvah soon after moving to the city. She was 12. Figured it out herself. Borrowed money from the place, hailed a cab, and got to the right address. Kids used to ride the city bus to school.

  4. JAJones

    Thanks – I’ll have to read this article in the New Yorker. Humans are extremely poor at assessing risk and overcoming fear which leads to this type of overprotective behavior (helicopter parenting) and on the flip side dangerous behavior such as not vaccinating your child, or not requiring everyone in your vehicle to wear a seat belt. People are inundated with 24 hour news, internet and social media outlets, extreme left or right news outlets all instilling fear in them about one topic or another. No wonder they act irrationally and let fear take over instead of logic and reason! Listen to this podcast from Invisibilia titled ‘Monsters Under the Bed’… . An environmental psychologist observes children in a small town in Vermont in the 1970s to understand what children do when left on their own to play. How far away do they venture from their house, for how long, where do they go to play (parks, the woods, playgrounds), what do they do to entertain themselves. He then returns to the same town recently and conducts the same experiment…often times the parents of the children he studies were the same children he observed in the 70s! When he compares the statistics for average distance children venture from home alone based on their age and duration they were allowed to be on their own without adult supervision you can guess the results. This despite the fact that he states that the US is the safest statistically speaking since the 1950s.

  5. JAJones

    One last related topic – I went to a Tedx talk in Red Bank NJ last year and the topic was ‘Play’. I found this talk from Dr. Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College, fascinating. Summary of the talk from YouTube ‘Dr. Peter Gray compellingly brings attention to the reality that over the past 60 years in the United States there has been a gradual but, overall dramatic decline in children’s freedom to play with other children, without adult direction. Over this same period, there has been a gradual but overall dramatic increase in anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness, suicide, and narcissism in children and adolescents. Based on his own and others’ research, Dr. Gray documents why free play is essential for children’s healthy social and emotional development and outlines steps through which we can bring free play back to children’s lives.’

    1. Gotham Gal

      I am definitely going to listen to these both. Super interesting.

    2. TanyaMonteiro

      very useful video for me – thank you for posting it JAJones

  6. gsilberman

    been reading about this…somehow they have a law in place in Silver Spring that a child must be accompanied until the age of 18 …..really strange

    1. Gotham Gal

      Seriously? That’s insane.

    2. gsilberman

      I looked up the law and they need to be with someone at least 13 of the kids was 10 and the other was 8 ….still ridiculous to make these parents appear before child services!!

  7. johndodds

    For a variety of reasons, many parts of the first world have developed a culture of reporting rather than intervening. It’s easier to abnegate social responsibility by making the phone call based on assumptions, biases or even bigotry than it is to make the effort to discover the truth of a situation.Those assumptions, biases or bigotry are then distorted through the lenses of third party responders. Sometimes with tragic results far beyond the ridiculous stigmatisation of the parents in Silver Spring.

  8. awaldstein

    A springboard for a larger topic, for kids and animals.If you see a kid locked in a car on a sweltering day, you do what?If someone ties dog up on a sub zero day and leaves it outside shivering while they eat breakfast, do you have a right to do anything?Culture, privacy and personal responsibility questions all.I believe that cultural norms outweigh individual rights that are wrong.

  9. LE

    Not sure I entirely agree with you on this one. (My wife would though…) The idea is to protect against the corner cases. Small chance of a bad thing happening. Not the same as being a helicopter parent in my opinion.My wife is much less protective with my stepkids than I would ever be. She does all sorts of “free range” things that I don’t find comfortable. I think that was because she was raised hands off and her parents were much younger and from a different era then my parents were. Some of the things that she allows make me feel quite uncomfortable actually. Her parents let their grandkids around their pool in the backyard and don’t even watch them (literally). Nothing has happened and now those grandkids are a bit old so it never will. However it wasn’t a smart thing to do. So where do you draw the line is a question? (I call this “raised by wolves” by the way.)Here’s a story. When I was a kid we had vaporizers that worked on hot water (not cold). Remember? So my mother setup the vaporizer on a lightweight table for my sister and stretched the cord across to the outlet (this was the 60’s). I came in and I jumped over the cord. My sister wanted me to do it again. So I did and the hot water spilled all over my arm and I spent 3 days in the hospital. I think that shaped my feeling on safety greatly. I am always on the lookout for things that are dangerous.Another story. My wife is a Physician. You know she can’t even send the kids to school with over the counter meds unless she writes a script as a Physician so that that the school has their liability covered! Over the counter meds! You need a doctors note for that in our school district. And have you tried to buy Dayquill in a Pharmacy lately? You now need to show your license to do that. Things have changed!

    1. Gotham Gal

      thanks. will read it.