New York Sun columnist Lenore Skenazy wrote a column — suspiciously, on 1 April, so one never knows how serious it was, but I think she meant it — about leaving her nine-year-old son to ride the NYC subway home by himself.
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.The next day, she appeared on WNYC’s call-in radio show hosted by Brian Lehrer, to talk about it. I haven’t listened to the MP3 audio yet, but I have it on my BlackBerry.
No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn’t want to lose it. And no, I didn’t trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”
Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.
Ms Skenazy goes on, after introducing the situation, to talk about what others think of her permissiveness:
Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating — for us and for them.
And yet —
“How would you have felt if he didn’t come home?” a New Jersey mom of four, Vicki Garfinkle, asked.
Guess what, Ms. Garfinkle: I’d have been devastated. But would that just prove that no mom should ever let her child ride the subway alone?
No. It would just be one more awful but extremely rare example of random violence, the kind that hyper parents cite as proof that every day in every way our children are more and more vulnerable.
That’s been a question of mine for a long time — a set of questions, actually. My parents and my friends’ parents let us — expected us to — do things that few parents allow now. I took public transportation (the city bus) to school when I was in second grade. I did “trick or treat” at Halloween with my friends, wandering blocks away from home, to houses where we knew no one, with no adult supervision. My parents left me alone in the toy departments of stores, while they went to shop for clothing or whatever. No one ever worried, as far as I was aware, about whether these were “safe” things to do.
Are things really “more dangerous” now than they were then? Or do we just hear more about it?
Can we really protect our kids successfully, without turning them into prisoners?
If there really are more dangers now, why is that? What happened that changed things?
And why can’t we fix it? Shouldn’t the police be taking care of this, so parents don’t have to lock their kids up?
When I was in sixth grade, we got to school one day to hear that a classmate had been shot. He’d been fishing in a local stream, along with a friend, and some nutter came upon them with a shotgun. The friend survived, and my classmate died. We were stunned. You heard, here and there, that these sorts of things happened, but they were more or less Hansel and Gretel stories, more fairy tales than reality. And, important though that incident was to us down in south Florida, folks in New York, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco surely never heard about it.
Yet now, when a six-year-old girl goes missing in Colorado it becomes national news for weeks, months, or years. I don’t say that that’s a bad thing. I do say that it makes us more keenly aware than we were, and that moves us to worry more.
And that gets us to Ms Garfinkle’s question and Ms Skenazy’s answer. Certainly, even if the situation is extremely rare, if you are the parent who has to deal with a child who’s missing or dead, you must surely feel horrible and guilty and... well, I can’t imagine. But does that mean that no precaution is too great? As Ms Skenazy says, mustn’t children taste independence at some point?
I think they must. As I look back on my own experience, I know that they must, despite the risks. With very great sympathy for the parents who’ve been on the wrong side of this... I know that they must.