It all started with a piece on NPR about how kids today have such a narrow range of independent travel. I was driving and probably arguing with a 6-year-old, so the details are hazy in my memory. But my takeaway was that our grandparents could walk four miles alone to go fishing, whereas these days our kids might be allowed to ride around the block unsupervised in a helmet and elbow pads. Maybe that piece started a trend, or maybe I was finally paying attention, but suddenly the notion that we overprotect modern kids was everywhere. “Free range your kids!” cried The Atlantic, PBS, books, blogs…
I had recently become a parent of elementary schoolers, and “free ranging” appealed. The kids finally seemed sturdy and hardy, and we live in a fairly contained, low-traffic neighborhood. Sitting on the front stoop to watch them play was an exercise in futility anyway, since they never stayed in view.
So, I laid down some ground rules and started staying the heck inside: 1. Wear helmets on wheeled things. 2. Check in before heading out of earshot so I know your rough whereabouts. 3. If you’re getting into a physical fight, don’t. 4. Don’t be casual about cars.
And away we went. Children outside, me inside doing dinner prep. Thanks, NPR!
But then, there was the time my 6-year-old burst in to tell me my 8-year-old was showing a strange man how to get to Walmart (which, for the record, is a long way from our house). Cue doubled heart rate. Turns out she and a neighbor boy were just showing a friendly group of college students the shortcut to Barracks Road, but we still had A Talk About Talking To Strangers. It went great. I was all, “Strange adults might want to harm you, so be careful about talking to people you don’t know. But most people don’t want to harm you, so don’t be afraid. And you should check in with me, because you might not be making good decisions! But don’t bother me with every little thing, because you need to learn to work things out on your own. O.K., then!” Crystal clear.
More recently, a neighbor mom and I decided to let our 10-year-old girls try walking the mile and a half home from soccer practice. They made it in about 20 minutes, and it was convenient for everyone involved. The second time around, they weren’t home after 35 minutes. The other mom offered to go out in the car and look for them, and the three minutes between the hang-up and the call back saying they were fine and just lollygagging were quite possibly the longest three minutes of my life. What if, because I was trying to be casual about the likelihood that something horrible would happen to my kid, something horrible had happened to my kid? How would I live with myself? God, how would I tell my husband?
In conclusion, I have no conclusion. It is a truth universally acknowledged that there’s no guaranteed way to keep your children absolutely safe. Things happen, even when you’re standing right there watching. In order for people to become trustworthy, they have to be trusted, and mistakes will be made. I tell myself all of these things over and over, and we struggle on.—Miller Murray Susen