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Would You Take Your Kids to the Park and Leave Them Alone?

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I heard a strange report today on 1010 WINS, an all-news radio station here in New York City. It mentioned that Lenore Skenazy, a former NY Daily News reporter, an author, and mother of two, was trying to organize "Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day" here in the city. According to the report, the idea is to promote independence and teach kids social skills (hey, don't they start getting these things in Pre-K?). I sat there staring at my bowl of oatmeal wondering if this woman lives in a New York City in parallel time.

I guess as a New Yorker I am rather jaded, but I take nothing for granted and do everything to promote security for my kids. I am always telling my daughter (who is nine) to be careful of strangers, and all the other warnings that are customary. When she goes to the park, I am not standing over her, but I am a short distance away on a bench. And no, I do not read a paper or get into chess games with the old guys sitting at the tables looking for an opponent. I do listen to my iPod, but I remain focused on her location and keep an eye on any other adults who may be in the vicinity.

As we have all heard countless times before, it used to be a different world. Years ago we were all out in the streets playing all day. I left early in the morning and either went up to the park at PS 68 or over the fence in Cypress Hills Cemetery to take advantage of the grass as a playing field for football. Never once did I think about my mother not being able to see me or my house being out of view. When our stomachs started rumbling, we all ran in different directions to have lunch (in those days all our mothers were stay-at-home moms), and then it was back to the streets until dinner time.

There were weird people in our neighborhood, to be sure, and strangers lurking on street corners, but they only slightly registered on my radar as I walked by them because we never heard stories about kids being abducted or worse. This was mainly because our neighborhoods were different then, especially in summer, when the lack of air conditioners brought people out on stoops to escape the heat. Many people sat out on fire escapes or hung out windows and watched what was happening, so in essence there was a brigade of nosy neighbors all over the place to keep watch over us.

Today things are very different. People are sealed up in their houses and apartments, inured to noises of the city that may include screaming kids playing in the street. With air conditioners blasting, TV sets set at high volume, and people stuck in front of their computer screens, no one sits outside anymore. Thanks to electric dryers, the days of the old women hanging out their wash and shooting the breeze (the old wash woman cliché) are long gone too.

So would I ever take my kid to the park and drop her off? Heck no. That's like saying go play in traffic on Fifth Avenue. There are too many variables, too many worries, and there is no way I could ever do this. So I am thinking, I have read Skenazy's columns in the past, and she always seemed like a sensible enough person with a good sense of humor. What is she trying to do here? Be funny? Like Elmo, I needed to know more.

This is when I decided to do a search on her to see what was up. I came across her web site Free Range Kids, which is also the title of her book. There are many things on the homepage of interest for parents to explore, but the thing that stood out for me was her "Do You Ever" column. In it she asks, "Do you ever…let your kid ride a bike to the library? Walk to school? Make dinner? Or are you thinking about it? If so, you are raising a Free-Range Kid!"

My answers to these questions are all "No" (except maybe the make-dinner one). At nine years old my daughter is a great bike rider, but she is not going to the library alone on her bike. Anyone who ever watched Everybody Hates Chris knows what can happen to a kid and a bike here in New York. And walking to school? I have heard too many horror stories about vans pulling up and kids getting abducted (which can take all of ten seconds) to even think about that.

Skenazy goes on to write, "Free-Rangers believe in helmets, car seats, seat belts—safety! We just do NOT believe that every time school age kids go outside, they need a security detail." Okay, maybe not, but they sure as hell need someone watching over them in this city. Perhaps you can get away with this in some rural or suburban areas, I cannot be sure about that, but it does not make any sense here in New York City (and I'm guessing in many other cities as well).

I had to do more searching on the web until I came across the site that tells the story about Take Your Kids to the Park, an event she wants to happen on May 22. Here she explains her reasons for having this day of kiddie freedom: "Yes, it's a day when we all are encouraged to take our kids, age 7 or 8 or older, to the park. With any luck, other parents will do this, too. And then, for an hour or a half-hour or even a baby step of 10 minutes, we leave them to their own devices. Their job is to rediscover the joy we almost have excised from their childhood: playing, with one another, without us parents helicoptering."

Okay, I think as I read this, so she really means it. Age 7 or 8? Even if they are with a whole bunch of other unsupervised kids, what does she think is going to happen? The most obvious thing is the chaos that will result from this dumping off of the kids, because without the parents around, what's stopping any of them from going wild and getting seriously hurt?

And, if you promote this in the papers and on the radio, who does she think will want to go to the park while the mommies and daddies are drinking their vente cappucinos in the quiet of the coffee shop? Every weirdo in the city will make haste for their local playgrounds to take advantage of this wealth of opportunities provided by this expression of carefree parenting.

I do agree with Skenazy's idea that kids need some freedom, and making the family dinner is not a bad start, but I wouldn't let my daughter use the stove and oven by herself at this point either. Besides, I think she has enough freedom with things I never had at nine years old: she uses a computer (with parental controls) to write and explore, she talks on the phone freely with her friends, and she has cable TV (again with parental controls) and a DVD player in her room. I didn't have my own TV until I was 18, and I had to wait until I was in my late twenties to have a computer. In my mind, at this point she is ahead of the game.

While Ms. Skenazy probably means well in what she is trying to do here, I think she is terribly mistaken. Promoting independence in a child can be done in many ways, but not at the expense of his or her safety. "Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day" is a case of one parent, who despite good intentions, is trying to lead parents and kids down a road that is rife with danger.

We all hear "They grow up so fast" all the time, and it is true. My daughter will get plenty of freedom someday soon enough, but right now I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that she gets to that time in her life in as safe a way as possible.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/diana_hartman diana hartman

    Victor, I’m not sure Ms. Skenazy does mean well. I’m not sure she even knows what she means. She asserts the crime rate is lower and that kids are statistically safer as if this is some kind of justification for getting a break without the expense of a sitter.

    I’m also not sure what kind of childhood she had such that her mother never bothered to tell her the secrets behind having kept her safe all those years. The good old days of my free roaming childhood was in Wichita, Kansas, not New York City – and it still wasn’t all butterflies and popsicles. Too, many a childhood took place in neighborhoods that were rife with adult friends of parents who, long before Facebook, were themselves a network of spies second only to the FBI.

    Ms. Skenazy has, to paraphrase, forgotten history and is thusly doomed to think she is the first to have an idea.

    Get in line, Ms. Skenazy. You’re not the first or even the first one-thousandth parent to so over-parent their child that they never have a minute to themselves. You’re also not the first to think a quick remedy is to leave a child to his/her own devices.

    Forget that a stranger could snatch up a seven-year-old child who isn’t being watched. Statistically it is indeed very unlikely. Forget the idea that s/he might run into traffic. Most kids that age are hesitant to approach the street, much less cross it.

    Consider a much more likely outcome: your child gets lost. Won’t you look silly when the police find out they’re looking for a child whose mother publicly advocated leaving the child in the park for upwards of 90 minutes unattended?

    Bummer if your child doesn’t “rediscover the joy” of a childhood the rest of us knew, but instead discovers you won’t be home anytime soon because you’re too busy discovering the joy of jail food and the witty banter of your new roommates while you wait for a hearing on charges of child neglect.

    For the sake of argument let’s say all goes well every single time you let your child loose in the park without you. In ten years I would love to read your perspective of parenting a teenager who thinks he should be allowed to stay out all night because, after all, he’s not seven years old anymore, Ma! The Covenant House will probably still be struggling financially to pick up where people like you leave off.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Wow, Diana, what a superb comment. If there were a Hall of Fame of Comments, it should be in there.

    Thanks!

  • http://www.joannehuspek.wordpress.com Joanne Huspek

    I get the idea of trying to recapture the era of (supposed) innocence, but in this day and age? Is there some way to take the kids to the park and put them in a corral with the parents nearby watching?

    I’m only kidding, of course. My fondest memories of “back in the day” included getting a day off to pack up a lunch and my little sister and take off on our bikes to explore then-rural Colorado. But would I encourage it today? Not even in now-Colorado.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    When we lived in the States, we over-parented our kids – riven with raw fear (which was pushed on every single milk carton we saw) – that our kids would be exposed to unsavory influences, if not kidnapped outright. We trusted nobody. Mind you, I had a childhood much like the author’s or Diana Hartman’s. But the world had changed, and we had to change with it.

    Then we moved to Israel. We lived in an absorption center in southeastern Jerusalem, which was effectively a gated community within the East Talpiot neighborhood where we lived. We let the kids run free. And they absorbed a lot of the culture here because we did.

    Life in a small town or neighborhood here is conducive to kids being able to run free and be self-sufficient, and by and large, Israeli kids are remarkably self-sufficient compared to American kids the same age. Ma’ale Levona has a rock cliff in the village which 5 year old’s routinely climb. Naturally, it is the American-born parents who get sick with worry over their kids climbing the rock cliff. The native parents just shrug and smile, and go back to whatever it is they are doing. There was a similar rock cliff in the absorption center, and my oldest boy, who has bad balance due to very mild CP, climbed it in an effort to find his younger brother. He did this on his own initiative and was not afraid. He never would have done such a thing in the States.

    Mrs. Skenazy (this is a Jewish name originally, meaning “German”) might want to take her butt (and her kids’ butts) and come home, here, where there is less risk of human trash ruining her kids lives. Her ideas seem more obtainable here than in America.

  • zingzing

    ah yes, the pleasures of gated communities and high cliffs.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Having done further research, I learned that Ms. Skenazy (a few years ago) put her nine year old son on a subway and sent him home alone. She did this to prove his ability, independence, and all that.

    Having used the subway since I was a teen (and before that with my parents), I can tell you that putting a nine year old on a car by himself is like throwing a baby off a pier.

    Yes, her son did get home (thank goodness), but she was just damn lucky. Perhaps Ruvy is right that she would do better in a place like Israel, because she has not come to terms with realities of today (at least in this city).

  • Land

    Me and my wife never leave our kids alone…
    One kid alone can be left at a younger age than multiple … but when i was growing up my mother didn’t leave me alone.

  • Heather Q

    Diana urges us to consider the likely outcome that our child will get lost. Really? If I thought that my child would “likely” (statistically more than 50% chance of getting lost) I would not leave them. What 7-10 year old gets lost when you tell them “Stay at the playground!”? We aren’t leaving them in the woods without a compass for heaven’s sake. We are talking about a neighborhood park. My 8 and 10 year-olds could walk from the park to our house, a store, their grandmother’s house or numerous friends. OR they could ask for help. OR they could ask to borrow a cell phone.

    Victor – She was not “damn lucky”, her kid was well prepared to find his own way home. He had been prepared for the event and set up with a plan for what to do if he needed help. He completed his plan and was pleased with the outcome, which, as it turns out,was the likely outcome… safety.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Heather, all it would have taken was one variable to mess up this “plan,” so she was damn lucky.

    Obviously, everyone is free to raise kids as they see fit; however, it is apparent to most people that 9 year olds don’t belong on the subway (or in the park for that matter) alone.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    it is apparent to most people that 9 year olds don’t belong on the subway (or in the park for that matter) alone.

    Victor,

    That is why you give the kid a cell-phone with clear instructions, if things don’t go right, CALL IMMEDIATELY.

    But Heather doesn’t consider what I would consider likely – that the kid does not follow instructions and does things on his own. That could range from making a wrong turn to ditching the cell phone.

    When my sister-in-law (who was living with us at the time) broke her leg, my sons had to walk to school alone, and take her daughter with them. It wasn’t a terribly long walk. They were capable of watching the girl and not losing her, but after the first time, they always varied their paths to school. My oldest, who needs set patterns, was going nuts. My younger boy, who is like me and likes to explore, took charge of the daily walks and was having a ball.

    We didn’t have cell phones at the time.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    And now it’s time – to say goodbye for 25½ hours to contemplate G-d’s creation.

    Good Sabbath

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Shabbat shalom, Ruvy!

  • Muddah

    We let our 9 and 7 yo play at the park whilst me(mom) and hubby take a walk. They do just fine. So many times children get hurt or even killed while with a parent. We worry about some stranger child predator taking our child and doing horrible things when that type of abuse usually comes at the hand of an adult or teen who is known and often in the home. Stop being worry warts and look at actual statistics.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/diana_hartman diana hartman

    Well, this is …diverse? In this thread it is asserted that leaving seven-year-olds unattended at a public park is a good idea. On another thread it is asserted that heavily supervised seven-year-olds are in grave danger. It isn’t the same people asserting both, so there’s that.

  • http://notesfromnancy.blogspot.com Nancy

    Okay, weirdos exist. They always have. I’d be more concerned about the neighbor next door than a random stranger. Crimes against children tend to happen with familiar faces.
    To the dinner comment, a 9 yr old is likely perfectly capable of turning on an oven, getting it to temperature, and popping in a frozen lasagna- just wear gloves to protect hands. OUT would be the time to get parental help. Paring knives are also relatively simple to handle. Problem with that? Buy precut salad. Dump into bowl and set on table with dressing.

  • http://hubpages.com/profile/Bob+Etier Miss Bob Etier

    I have two words for Skenazy: Etan Patz

    As for me, I’d only leave my kids at the park (if I had any little ones) alone if I was trying to get rid of them. Hmmmmm…will that work for two fortyish girls?

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    UPDATE****

    The BIG “Take Your Kids to the Park and Leave Them There Day” was a complete bust. The only people to show up in Central Park were Ms. Skenazy, her husband, and son.

    She was true to her word. She left her son alone and told him to take the subway home to Queens. She and her husband then went off to do whatever. Hopefully, son Izzy (12) made it home okay.

    The turnout, or lack thereof, surely shows New Yorkers are not ready for this “freedom” for their kids.

  • Ellis

    Did you honestly just use a fictional comedy show as an example of why you wouldn’t let your kid ride a bike? I feel sorry for them that their parents are so paranoid. Your kids are statistically much safer at the park alone than they are riding in a car with you driving. That is reality. Bringing up a kidnapping that happened years ago halfway across the country is utterly meaningless.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Ellis, I used the show as an example. Bikes are stolen all the time around here–for real. It’s just that Everybody Hates Chris handled it so well and humorously.

    Statistics are nice on paper, but when your kid is abducted they mean nothing. I’ll err on the side of caution any day.

  • rachel

    Every kid matures at a different age. Some 8 year olds are savvy enough to walk home from school and be latch key kids (i was, in NY), other kids can’t be left home by themselves at 12 because they don’t have good judgment yet. A parent has to know what their child is capable of and it can’t be determined just by a birth date.

  • Albert

    Now let me tell you where I live, I live in a gated community, we have but one way in and out, (against most fire codes but it was approved), we have cameras, 5 total, all focused on that gate coming in and out, two of the five a special license reader, all because we have a very scared paranoid BOD running this place and truth be told I was a member of the board when we made the purchase of the cameras. In the ten years we have been here one flurry of burglaries our private security in concert with local authorities put an end to that in record time!
    My question to you folks am I crazy because I want my son to have some level of independence and ability to grow. I don’t know but I’ve seen what the other side creates, adult children who can’t take care of themselves at the age of 28. They can’t find a job, oh they are great workers but you have to put them in the job otherwise it’s not going to happen. I’ve seen it it’s in my family

    Just saying they need to explore.

  • Stephanie

    “I have two words for Skenazy: Etan Patz”

    The plural of anecdote is not evidence.