Friday, April 04, 2008


Is our children safe?

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.

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.

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.

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.


Dr. Momentum said...

Well, it's pretty tough to argue that no protection is too great, so I am forced to agree. I would definitely disagree with chaining your child to the radiator.

However, Ms. Skenazy's experiment leaves me short on usable conclusions. Apparently, her son can navigate the city. Does that mean my kids can swim in the ocean unattended?

Ok, I'll try harder: parents should be able to judge their own child's abilities based on their child.

Ms Skenazy's answer is evasive:

"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."

No, but it seems to me like it would have proven that Ms. Skenazy shouldn't have let her child ride the subway alone.

To conclude otherwise is called "having lost your marbles after a horrible tragedy" and would probably be understandable, given the circumstances. but i think more people would eventually figure it was a bad decision.

Turning the question around, and applying her own logic instead of mine, the fact that her son came home OK cannot be used to conclude that it is OK to let your son navigate the city alone.

So I guess that leaves us with a useless experiment.

Barry Leiba said...

«No, but it seems to me like it would have proven that Ms. Skenazy shouldn't have let her child ride the subway alone.»

Ah, no, but that's exactly the opposite of what Ms Skenazy is saying... and she's not being evasive at all. It certainly would not prove that she made the wrong choice. It would prove, as she says, that random stuff happens, and that sometimes you get caught by that.

Would it be any different had he been riding the subway alone three times a week for a year, and then he happened to get snatched? Either way, it's the sort of thing that we know can happen, but it's sufficiently unlikely that we can't live our lives in fear of it.

Reasonable precautions are reasonable. Beyond that, we have to live our lives, and we have to teach kids how to live their lives. I presume she'd taken her son on the subway many times. I presume that she thought about it, and decided that he was responsible enough to do it on his own.

Maybe you wouldn't make the same decision for M and K at the age of 9. Maybe you'd wait 'til 12, or 15. We all have to make our own choices.

lidija said...

Thanks for this post, Barry. I worry about this subject a lot myself. I grew up in a time/town where I went to 1st grade alone (all 2 long blocks), then to the music school (2nd grade and on, across the town), picked up my brother from the daycare on the way back (my mom called to check in, or if in a meeting or on the road, had a colleague call in), made us both lunch, did my homework. My mom would send me out to buy a couple of things she urgently needed while in the middle of cooking dinner etc etc. But we never heard of abductions and other such horrors. And so I wish to raise my children with some amount of freedom and responsibility that you get with such opportunities. Yet I am petrified of letting them do the equivalent (not to mention that living in the suburbs they can't do any of this until they can drive). I do believe that they will not be able to safely do the same things I did unless we lived on an island, alone. And I do believe that access to information combined with the media's love-fest with accidents and fear-mongering makes us all A LOT more afraid than we should be. Yet, I am petrified. Fear is a hard thing to battle. Just ask most moral Americans who haven't said a thing about our policy on torture.

Dr. Momentum said...

Mustn't children taste independence at some point? Sure. But at least give them guns so that they can defend themselves.

Julietta said...

I was an independent 9 year old too. But I was in Europe, and it was long time ago, and I think it really was safer then. Or else I just had a really irresponsible father who didn't much care and let me do things I oughtn't have.

I do remember walking alone to places, like school, shops, friends' houses, the movies... but I also remember there were creepy men who sometimes made "weird" remarks or "casually" touched me (and I was afraid to tell my dad). Was that a necessary part of my growing up and learning to be independent? Was it because I was female?

I didn't ride the NY subway alone until I was 15, commuting to Arts Student's League in NYC from Queens. What I remember about those rides was men pushing against me when it was crowded, and being able to feel their erections. Or worse, some guy ejaculating on my shoe.

So, the subway is now supposed to be some benchmark for independence in NYC? What's the equivalent in other cities? In the 'burbs? In the country? I'm all for kids' independence, and as a parent have watched (sometimes petrified) my kids take many steps toward theirs. It's NEVER easy, but it is imperative to let go.

But I would still never put my 9 year old on a subway alone.

Paul said...

This is a difficult issue every parent faces. How much independence does one give a child, and when? I can remember the first day I didn't walk my son to the door of the school, but stopped on the sidewalk, and let him navigate from there. I can remember the first day I stopped across the street from the school, the first day I stopped at the foot of my driveway, and the first day I said goodbye to him from inside our front door. Each incidence required a conscious decision on my part to grant him that next step in the growth of his feelings of independence, and each one was faced with some degree of trepidation.

What we are talking about here is not whether she should have done what she did, but whether she should have done it at her son's particular age. While I don't think I would have done the same when my son was that age, she made a decision based upon her own feelings of her son's abilities and maturity, and I cannot fault her for that.

I think what many people are having a difficult time with is her apparent matter-of-fact attitude about it. I doubt it was as easy for her as her written words make it sound. I suspect she spent the time between when she dropped him off and when he got home perched on the edge of her chair, starting at every sound she heard, heart pounding, asking herself if she had made a mistake. God forbid if the phone had rung during the interval, she might have had a heart attack.

But, she couldn't openly display any of that fear, either before or afterwards. To her son, she had to radiate nothing but trust and confidence in his ability. I suspect that's why her article (at least that part of it you quoted) seems so devoid of emotion. I'm sure her son reads her work. I'm also sure she is human, and felt every bit of the trepidation I felt the first time I let my son cross the street without holding my hand.

Maggie said...

I frankly think what she did was very stupid, and the casual way she talks about it is most likely a defensive reaction to the reactions she knew in advance she would get from other people. Perhaps she chafes a little under the idea that we are overprotecting our children, and she chose this stupid way to give her child the independence he craves and make a point.

It's not even smart for an adult to walk around alone. A friend of mine was pumping gas when a man walked up to her and told her to give him her keys. I don't know what the idiot was thinking -- there was another man pumping gas who heard my friend's reaction (my friend is hilariously bossy and told the guy, "first of all, you take one step back!"), so she wasn't alone. Her little daughter was in the car, she wasn't giving that guy her keys. But she was scared to death. It made me think three times about pumping gas -- I always take the pump closest to the clerk, I give my kids my cell phone while I'm pumping, I hide my keys and credit card, I tell them to jump out of the car if anyone gets in, EVERY TIME.

In Girl Scouts we teach the girls the buddy system. They don't even walk to the girl's room at school during a meeting without a friend. They certainly don't walk to the latrine in the pitch black while camping without a buddy (usually at 2 am the buddy is a very exhausted leader who has already been to the latrine with six other Girl Scouts....).

If you want them to learn independence, give them responsibility. Let them challenge themselves with tasks that you choose. If she really felt the subway were an important step for her son, she could have let him come home with a friend (if she could have found another like-minded parent -- nine seems awfully young).

I've read that this sort of overprotective parenting is practiced by the middle class alone. The lower class doesn't have the luxury, and the upper class, well, I think they believe they're invincible. Probably the worst thing Biff's going to do is get drunk and topple into the pool, and then hopefully the butler will fish him out before it's too late. Most of the kids I went to (private) grade school with went to boarding school. Their parents were done. And they've gone on to move away from home and be very successful (rich) people. Except the ones who are dead. One died in a motorcycle accident, one got run over by a lawn mower (god knows why he was alone on the school grounds unsupervised to get run over by a lawn mower).

My father talks about this question a lot. Is it more dangerous now? He doesn't think so. He remembers stories about certain people in his community that you stayed away from if you didn't want to get molested. In nearby New Bedford, a little boy was raped in the library. There are more people now. Maybe the percentage of child rapists hasn't changed, but there are more of them, and if you're going to be the parent to leave your kid alone in a place where a child rapist would look for a kid, then your kid is going to be the one targeted. Duh.

Old male geek said...

Like you I had a normal, well supervised, but not smothering childhood. I didn't take public transportation to school until high school, but on nice days we walked about one half to one mile to our grade school. Boys and girls, including one precious little blond haired girl (if I remember right).

I had more fears of playground bullies than of perverts, but kids were expected to stand their own ground and allowed to roam "the neighborhood" unsupervised. We made our own games (organized sports activities were rare) and adventures.

In the fourth grade (about 9 years old), I rode my bike for miles, again totally unsupervised) and about that time me and my little brother were allowed to ride the bus to a local movie theater.

In case you think that I lived in some idyllic Midwester suburb, I did not. This was New York City in the 1950's.

However, we knew where we were going. As old as 16, I had a summer job which found me in the South Bronx and got lost on the subway home. Unsupervised wanderings are one thing, but randomly dropping a child down in NYC to find his way home seems a mite irresponsible to me. I bet this mother is a liberal and lives in a high income zip code. I think that any blue collar parent would have had more sense than that!