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.