There’s a video, somewhere, that my eight-year-old son took before it happened. He and his six-year-old brother are about 100 feet up the wide, wooded trail from his father, who is fishing, while one brother films the other through the cell phone.
“Say something,” he orders his brother. “Ummm….” August shifts on his feet and chants lackadaisically, “Spinosaurus eats sawfish and sawfish eats other fish and other fish eat other things.” In another video, August bangs a stick against the ground. “Good walking stick,” he grunts.
They are two boys left to their own devices in what can charitably be called the woods: a forested concrete walking trail on the banks of the Congaree River. They know to stay on the trail, and even if they’d disobeyed, the river was low and slow that day and they know never, ever, to approach it. They are close enough to hear the fishing alarms on their poles. They have a cell phone and clearly know how to use it. Their father is only one hundred feet away.
Shortly after that video was taken, a woman approached them. A baby boomer in her late-fifties, early sixties, white. Full-on power-walking, jogging gear, with a lycra and a windbreaker she’d tied around her waist from the warm day. With no introductions or pleasantries, she demanded, “Where are your parents?”
After telling her they were with their dad, they ran that hundred feet back to him.
The woman didn’t follow my sons to see if they were, in fact, with a parent; instead, she called the rangers and reported children alone on the trail.
When she found my kids later, fishing happily with their dad, August hid from her (this is his favorite defense mechanism), and she was all apologies. “Well, if the rangers come around,” she fluttered, “I called them because I saw two kids alone … can never be too careful … like that kid out in California last week … “ She wasn’t worried about them drowning, a far more present threat. She was worried about predators and pedophiles.
“Lady,” my husband said, “the only person who harassed them or scared them was you.”
She swept off in a huff.
My sons told me later that she terrified them.
I have no desire to be a helicopter parent. I am trying to raise free-range kids. Kids who can not only navigate the world on their own — and 100 feet up the trail is hardly that — but who can confidently move through a world without illogical fears, assured that most people are good, and if some people are bad, well, you take normal precautions (cell phone, yelling for help, kicking and screaming), and you’re generally okay.
But this is what I’m up against.
According to the Brennan Center, crime in 2015 was half of what it was in 1990. It’s 22% less than it was at the turn of the century. Our kids are safer than we were, by a long shot. Physical assault against children is down 33% from 2003-2011, and attempted or completed rape plummeted 43% in the same time period, according to the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center. And the number of kids abducted by strangers every year, according to Free Range Kids, is 115. Only 50 are killed by their abductor.
On the other hand, according to the CDC, about 10 people die per day from unintentional drowning, 1 in 5 of them children. For every one kid who drowns, five receive emergency care for submersion. Drowning is the fifth among leading causes of accidental death in the US. My kids were next to a freaking river. They knew not to go near it. But they were near a river, nonetheless, and I can understand a passerby being concerned about a six-year-old and a big body of water. Yet this didn’t seem to phase our harasser.
We have shifted our perception of risk from the likely to the sensational. And it’s the fear of the sensational — the lurking predator, the menacing abductor — that drives our parenting.
My kids are eight and six. Am I supposed to hold their freaking hands all the time? Am I supposed to keep them at my side constantly? My sons are at the age when they need to be exploring the world. They need to test their limits, to hit things with sticks, to grow their own world outside the purview of adults. They need to learn who they are aside from their parents.
And how are they supposed to do that when society loses its collective mind if they wander 100 feet away?
This generation — the baby boomers — are the same ones penning screeds about Millennials and their dependence. Their ridiculous need for help, their inability to do things on their own, the fact that their parents call their college professors because they can’t manage to.
The Washington Post reports that, “According to recent studies, 44 percent of college students experienced symptoms of depression, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death among college students.” The article goes on to say that, “They often are unable to think for themselves. The over-involvement of helicopter parents prevents children from learning how to grapple with disappointments on their own. If parents are navigating every minor situation for their kids, kids never learn to deal with conflict on their own. Helicopter parenting has caused these kids to crash-land.”
And if that’s the case, how can I combat that when I live in a society that expects me to helicopter parent? That demands I hold the hands of my 8- and 6-year-olds, that I smooth their roads and keep them in sight and manage their play? If my kids never have time to be kids, never have time away from adults, they will never learn these important skills they need to protect themselves. Baby Boomers learned them — they got kicked outside and told not to come home until dinner. Generation Xers and the Oregon Trail Generation learned it — just look at the way the kids in Stranger Things spend so much time away from adults.
But our kids will not learn it if we listen to people like this lady, who did indeed call the park rangers on our Free Range asses. Who luckily did not show up. But in a society full of people like her, how do we cope? How do we raise our kids with civil penalty?
We pull up our britches. We bring a dose of sanity and truth. We send the kids up the trail, up the street, into the store. In short, we keep on keepin’ on. In the end, for the sake of our kids, it’s all we can do.