Each day seems to be one scary news story after another, but this week, one story in particular caught my eye. It wasn’t a story about a kidnapping or a murder – though there are plenty of those, to be sure, and each one breaks my heart. No, this one hit close to home. Literally and figuratively.
Corey Widen – a mom just like you and me – had let her 8-year-old daughter walk the dog around the block, and it resulted in a visit from the police and an investigation by the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services.
She was doing something that moms have been doing since the beginning of time – trying to raise her child to be a responsible and independent person. All it took was one nosey and judgmental parent to ensnare her in an investigation that called into doubt her ability to be a good mother.
Widen’s story looks all too similar to my own. And that sends shivers down my spine. She lives in a town much like mine (in fact, it’s just 30 miles away). And she was doing something that I frequently let me own kids do – walk around the neighborhood alone.
My kids – ages 8 and 11 – have walked to school (which is about 2/3 of a mile away) for the past couple of years, without an adult. They regularly walk or bike to friends’ houses that are a few blocks away. They bike to the playground to play, alone. And yes, my 8-year-old has, on occasion, walked our dogs alone.
In fact, more than once this summer, I banished my kids from the house, saying, “Just go outside and play!” And they would hop on their bikes and leave. Sometimes they went to the park, other times they just rode their bikes and looked for adventures. Sometimes they walked to the gas station down the street and bought Slurpees. In other words, they were kids getting a taste of independence so that they can grow up to be independent, responsible, capable adults.
Believe me, I know the risks. And I still let me kids walk around town alone. In fact, I encourage it.
But first, let’s be clear about the risks. The risks aren’t the amorphous “stranger danger” or some boogie man lurking in the bushes. The risks are you, nosy neighbor, who are so quick to call the cops at the drop of a hat. You are the danger that keeps me up at night. Not strangers, or unlikely worst case scenarios, it’s YOU.
By all measures, our kids are safer now than ever. In the past 80 years, the child mortality rate in the U.S. has decreased tenfold. Overall, violent crime rates are about half what they were in 1991. And according to the FBI, missing person reports have fallen 40%in the past 20 years — and only 1/10 of 1% of those missing persons were kidnappings by strangers.
Our kids are safer than we were when we were growing up, yet parents today love to pine after the “good ol’ days” of when we stayed out until the streetlights came on and rode our bikes for hours without our parents knowing where we were. Yet we don’t give our kids even an inkling of the same freedoms. We bitch about how “kids these days” are incapable of handling even the tiniest responsibility and how helicopter parents are showing up at college to advocate for a higher grade for their (adult) child.
But kids don’t automatically become independent adults if they aren’t given independence along the way. They don’t become self-sufficient and capable of getting out of a jam if they aren’t allowed to handle things alone sometimes. Which is why I will keep encouraging my kids to walk around town alone. It is a critical part of teaching them to be responsible, capable, and independent adults. We equip with the skills they need by continually talk about safety and what to do if they need help, and they we have to let them go a little to try things on their own.
But we’re just looking out for the kids, some might say. This is what it means to be part of the village.
No. Just NO. This is not what that so-called village looks like.
Here’s how this whole village thing is supposed to work. When my younger son was about four-years-old, he sometimes played alone outside while his older brother was at school. One morning, he was playing in our front yard – alone – while I was inside the house. We live on a rather busy street, but he was playing close to the house and I peeked out the window to check on him every few minutes.
After my son had come inside, our doorbell rang and I opened the door to find a woman I had never met standing on my doorstep. She said she had seen a little boy playing in my yard and was worried that he was alone. I assured her that the boy was my son, and he was fine. She apologized and seemed slightly embarrassed. I thanked her for checking in, even though I felt slightly defensive that someone was checking up on me.
And then we all went about our day. Because this is what the village is supposed to look like. Neighbors looking out for each other – asking questions when in doubt and trusting that parents know what’s best for their kids. Sure, that other mom and I both felt awkward about the whole thing, but a whole lot less awkward than if my son was in danger or I had opened the door to a police officer, that’s for sure.
So, yes, I will keep letting my kids walk around town alone. In fact, I will encourage it. And I will do it in spite of my fears of all the nosy and judgmental parents out there. Because that’s what parenting is all about – putting our own fears aside for the sake of our kids.