Is It Just Me?: Let’s Stop Scaring Our Kids

It’s 7:35 on the Today show—the time reserved for big, national stories. (George Clooney isn’t scheduled till later.) Ann Curry

It’s 7:35 on the Today show—the time reserved for big, national stories. (George Clooney isn’t scheduled till later.) Ann Curry is speaking directly to the camera, her face friendly but concerned because her next guest just may be insane. “So,” she asks her six million viewers, “is she an enlightened mom or a really bad one?”

The shot widens to reveal…me.

My son, Izzy, is by my side, stuffed with NBC’s free cookies, both of us here because I’d recently left him, deliberately, in the first-floor handbag department of the Manhattan Bloomingdale’s.

Kids can leave home without a police detail and survive.

He was nine and had been begging me to please let him find his way home from someplace—anyplace—on the subway, by himself. After all, we live in New York City, and getting around by public transit is a basic part of life, like yelling at cabbies in the crosswalk. It’s also a rite of passage, the first step toward feeling grown-up. So on that sunny Sunday, I gave him a subway map, a transit card, $20 for emergencies, and a couple of quarters in case he had to call me. (No, no cell phone. Nine-year-olds lose things.)

Despite a tiny twinge, however, I had no intention of losing him. New York today is as safe as it was in 1963, making it almost embarrassingly ungritty—but reassuring. So I waved goodbye and left in the other direction. After 45 minutes, he arrived home, far more tickled than your average commuter.

A few days later, I wrote about his adventure, or nonadventure, for my paper, the New York Sun. Little did I realize this would be the Subway Ride Heard Round the World.

Somehow the idea that a kid could navigate the city on his own, and that a mom would let him, was big news. Huge! It turned out the Today show interview was just the first of the day. After I dropped Izzy off at school, I sped up to MSNBC to talk about his ride again. When Fox News called, I turned around and grabbed him back out of school, and off we zoomed to Neil Cavuto. The segment got more feedback than the Bear Stearns bailout hearing.

Pretty soon, NPR was calling. Newsweek. The BBC. Malta. Bloggers were going crazy, so I started a blog, too, Free Range Kids, and letters came pouring in: “Bravo!” vs. “Why didn’t child services come to your door?” Then came a call from the South China Morning Post: Izzy’s story was perfect for Asia.

“But why?” I asked the reporter. “Isn’t everyone there, like, outside together, riding bikes? Sort of the opposite of New York?”

Biking or not, she said, the people in China are much more fearful these days. They don’t trust their neighbors the way they used to. They don’t let their kids out as much. And that’s when I finally realized why this was such a big story: Worldwide, we have become terrified for our children.

The things we did as kids without thinking twice—walking to a friend’s house, playing in the park, staying out till the streetlights came on—have somehow morphed into acts of daring on a par with shark hunting in a hamburger suit.

One dad I spoke to won’t allow his eight-year-old to play in his own driveway. Another suburban dad “lets” his 12-year-old walk the single block to her friend’s house, so long as she calls him the second she arrives.

Even my best friend confided that when she and her own 12-year-old split up at the mall for the few minutes it takes to grab food from separate food-court restaurants, she’s “nervous the whole time.” My friend was a Harvard math major, so she is perfectly aware of probability and statistics and that the odds of anything bad happening to her daughter are tiny.

Doesn’t matter. “I’m comfortable being nervous,” she said.

Fear is hardly a new parental emotion, of course. It has kept us Homo sapiens cleverly running and hiding for millennia, and I certainly have my share of it (“Stop! That stick is way too short for toasting your marshmallow!”). But the fear of letting our children out of sight for even a second—that’s new. And it feeds not only on legitimate angst but also on a steady diet of peer pressure. “Powerful cultural pressures incite parents to regard every childhood experience from the standpoint of the worst possible outcome,” says Paranoid Parenting author Frank Furedi. “To do otherwise is to be seen as an ‘irresponsible parent.'”

And so I receive an e-mail about a father who’s contemplating following his daughter’s field trip to make sure she’s safe, even as a mom in an upscale Atlanta community admits that she won’t let her daughter go to the mailbox alone because in her quiet suburban neighborhood, there would be no witnesses if someone were to snatch her daughter.

The upshot: Drive through most suburban streets and it’s as if the kids have been vacuumed up with the lawn trimmings. How did this happen? How did it become too scary to let kids be kids?

“TV,” says Trevor Butterworth, an editor at the media watchdog group “Cable TV exists to scare the pants off you.” That’s how it gets you to stay tuned. And what is scarier than a kidnapped kid—no matter how far away?

Thanks to a steady stream of those stories, it starts to feel as if kidnappings are happening all the time, on a Schwinn near you. But they’re not, says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “Crimes against kids are down to levels we haven’t seen since the early ’70s.”

“‘Stranger danger’ cases are the ones that make the big headlines,” says Corwin Ritchie, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association. “But that’s not the typical child-abuse case. The typical case involves an acquaintance of the child.”

The fact is, children are 40 times more likely to die in a car accident, and that doesn’t stop us from driving them to karate. Car accidents, after all, are still considered exactly that—accidents. But we blame parents, the way we used to blame rape victims, for “letting” anything happen to their children. If tragedy ever befell our child, we wouldn’t just be heartbroken. We all know we’d be there on CNN with a pseudo-sympathetic host asking, “Why? Why did you let her scooter to her piano lesson?” And then they’d cut to a commercial to build the tension.

That’s why the kid-on-the-subway story struck people so profoundly. Here was a mom on TV saying what a million other newscasts never do: Kids can leave the home without a police detail and survive!

Izzy probably put it best. Like all of us who’d grown up with the freedom to play tag, fall off the monkey bars, and chase the mosquito spray truck, he didn’t think it was a big deal. “It was fun,” he said. Plus, being on national TV meant that he missed math class. Sometimes it really pays to be brave.

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