Last night, I was blissfully stumbling through the blogosphere when I landed on “Free-Range Kids” by Lenore Skenazy, an author and columnist who is sometimes called, “America’s Worst Mom”.
She “earned” that title by one day allowing her 9-year-old to find his way home — all on his own — via the subway and buses of New York City:
Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn’t strike me as that daring, either. Isn’t New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It’s not like we’re living in downtown Baghdad.
Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.
After her son made it safely home, brimming with a new-found sense of independence, she wrote about his experience in a column for the New York Sun. That got her invited onto several talk shows — at least one of which billed her as “America’s Worst Mom”. People quickly accused her of neglect and child abuse.
Are those charges justified?
The thought of a 9-year-old boy negotiating his way alone through the streets of New York City alarms us. We can easily imagine all sorts of horrors happening to such a kid. Many of us fear to allow our children out of our sight, let alone allow them to ride the subway by themselves. But Lenore Skenazy — and perhaps a growing number of other parents — believe those fears are largely misplaced.
Skenazy argues that parents fear for their children’s safety way more than is warranted today. According to her, we have become a hyper-vigilant nation of overly protective parents. And the facts simply don’t justify our common perception that children are at exceedingly great risk of harm.
For instance, according to some crime statistics that Skenazy cites, the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger or slight acquaintance are about one chance in 1,500,000. To translate that into more concrete terms, you would on average need to leave your child unprotected for about 750,000 years before you could be sure she would be abducted. In 1999, there were only 115 such kidnappings in the United States.
In a recent interview, Skenazy elaborated on why these days we might feel the world is not a safe place for our children despite the facts that suggest it is:
The world is actually safer, statistically, than it was when I was growing up. In the 1970s and 1980s, crime was going up in the States, peaking around 1993. Then it came down, back to the level of the 1970s. It just doesn’t feel that way.
Now there’s the 24-hour news cycle. There is not one episode today of Law & Order that could have been aired before, say, 1971. It’s so graphic and disturbing and violent. It’s on every night of the week. Parents watch it, kids watch it.
Those images don’t just go away, even though our rational minds know they’re fiction. Those images are the first to come to mind when you ask yourself, “How safe is it for my kids go outside?” You don’t think of yourself walking to school – it’s so mundane that it doesn’t come to mind. But I can picture a missing child’s photo…. That’s how we think these days. If one child in the entire country is kidnapped and held for 18 years, that’s what we should be basing all our decisions on – the very outside, worst-case-scenario that something bad could happen.
The notion that television might be warping our sense of reality and needlessly increasing our fears has been around for some time. I recall reading about 35 years ago a study published in Psychology Today that suggested people who watch a lot of TV tend to overestimate life’s dangers. Since then, there have been numerous studies collaborating that one. So, Skenazy could very well be correct to suppose TV is a cause of exaggerated fears.
She proposes that parents put aside their fears to give their children more independence:
We are not daredevils. We believe in life jackets and bike helmets and air bags. But we also believe in independence.
Children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage. The overprotected life is stunting and stifling, not to mention boring for all concerned.
I think in that, she makes a great deal of sense. There are parents today who will not let a 7-year-old walk a block to their friend’s house, nor even allow her to go unescorted to the mailbox. There are kids who are not allowed to play unsupervised. Surely, most neighborhoods are not so dangerous as to justify that sort of hovering attention.
I do have a major concern with Skenazy’s statistics. The figure she often cites — one chance in 1,500,000 of a kid being kidnapped — is very likely misleading.
The figure seems to be based on the NISMART October 2002 Non-Family Abducted Children Report (.pdf), which found that only 115 children had been victims of stereotypical kidnappings in 1999. But a stereotypical kidnapping is a rather special case:
During the study year, there were an estimated 115 stereotypical kidnappings, defined as abductions perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance and
involving a child who was transported 50 or more miles, detained overnight, held for ransom or with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.
Of more concern to us might be kidnappings that did not involve transporting the victims 50 or more miles and detaining them overnight. There were — not 115 — but 58,200 of those in 1999. Children are at significantly greater risk of abduction than Skenazy’s favored statistic might lead us to believe.
I don’t think it can be doubted that Skenazy documents numerous examples of excessive and irrational fears for the safety of children on her blog. I do believe, however, that children are at a much greater risk of abduction than she seems to think. Yet, it seems to me her main point — that children need more independence than our fears are allowing them — is probably a very good one. The question is finding the right balance.