Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Feeling Crabby

I come out of my crabhole to mention this piece, which many of you have surely seen. It concerns the cocoon of neurosis and hysteria that continues to bind our collective parenting circle in this country...and no doubt in other countries too by now, countries in which real danger isn't imminent in the lives of middle class children and so parents fixate on hypothetical ones. This article--on whether children should be allowed to walk alone to school--is a timely one. Because after the reappearance of kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard, many parents are rethinking their decision to allow their kids to walk to the school bus...or home from a friend's. Because what if some insane lunatic chooses your child, at that moment, on that day...?

I understand what if. Duh. Becoming a parent is the ultimate what if act, one long series of what-ifs every single day and night. No doubt about it, motherhood is the most fearful enterprise of my life, and trust me, I am a feeble coward in all matters, but becoming a mother has brought out the total crabcoward in me: I continually scuttle into the darkness of my scared mommy-mind, debating the what-ifs...You moms and dads know what I'm talking about. I need hardly list for you the many hideous things that pop into a parent's mind daily, when it comes to children's safety. And it doesn't even have to be all that hideous to prompt us to spring into Safe Mommy mode, leaping to spot a tot on the monkey bars or gallumphing stupidly after a preschooler on her scooter, just in case she should happen to fall. No generation prior to ours has perfected the art of preempting a what-if before it even happens: we are masters at it, springing into action in advance of any danger....just in case...because, you know, it could happen.

And so one goes through the toddler and preschooler years reaching to stop something from happening before it even has a chance. And maybe along the way we relax a bit, deal with the scraped knee and the bump on the head. Or the broken arm, even. Because we realize these kids need to learn how to ride a bike or do the monkey bars or climb a tree. But then there comes a moment when a parent has to let a kid leave the house without him or her. And that's when, apparently, many of us draw the line, deciding that, in fact, our kids don't have to learn how to walk to school/ the bus stop/ wherever on their own. Because this time, it's not worth the risk.

But to model one's parenting style on fear-based thinking is surely just as sinister if not more so than actually dealing with fear itself, with the random, baseless, uncontrollable what-ifs of life. If we never let our kids walk to the bus stop/ ride a bike to a friends without Mom tailing him in her car/ take an airplane to see grandparents, alone/ play on the front lawn without being watched...our children will not grow up to be independent, able to take and assess risks, able to navigate through the world around them. If we teach our kids that they are a bunch of wussies and that they should be wussies because the world is a scary place, then we'll get fearful, nervous, freaked out, high-maintenance co-dependent children. We will get followers, not leaders, needy little twerps who break down at the slightest hint of hardship, adults who can't enjoy their lives properly because they don't know how to take control of their fears and insecurities...

All obvious...right? Less obvious, though, is where one draws the line as parents. At what point does the chance of a random Jaycee Dugard possibility trump the chance of teaching a child a measure of freedom? What risks are worth taking at what age? Nobody will give you the same answer with this one, and of course reasonable risk differs from place to place, child to child, age to age...there are too many variables to make a catch-all statement about this one. All I can say, for sure, is that it's extremely hard not to create total wussies in America today because few people are really assessing the risks properly: few people measure the what ifs of a pedophile/ kidnapper/ car accident with the what-ifs of over-coddling children, seeing the former danger as vastly outstripping the latter in every single case. Even though most readers of this blog and that NYT piece live in the safest possible neighborhoods, we still seem fixated on safety above all else. And yes, it's important to be vigilant and smart and careful. But it's not everything.

To my mind, weighing the other what-if is just as important as weighing up the real physical risks attached with any measure of freedom a child will need, want, and require. What if I don't give her any freedom? What if I don't let her walk to the bus stop (when she's 8 or 9 or whatever age seems right at the time)? What if I don't let her have adventures on her bicycle with her little friends? What happens to her then? And what happens to me as a mom if I wander around compelled to invoke the specter of Jaycee Dugard and Etan Patz every time I consider allowing my kid some independence in her safe, safe, super-safe American life?

As we all know, overprotective hyperfreaked parenting is all-pervasive in our Nation of Wimps. And it is all too easy to become such a parent. It's an impulse I have to fight in myself all the time; sometimes I get wussy, but I strive to buck the heck up. Because the primary goal of parenting is to foster independence. That's our number one job as parents: to teach our children to live in the world. It's a crappy world in many ways, but we haven't colonized any other planets yet so we need to give our kids the chops to deal with where they are, and they aren't going to get those chops if they don't see them modeled by the adults around them.

I am heartened by moms such as Lenore Skenazy (who let her kid ride the subway alone because he was ready) and the mom in this Times piece who lets her second-grader walk to the (very close by) bus stop even though people around her constant undermine her decision and invoke what-ifs as though, in fact, they are probabilities and not wildly exceptionally unlikely possibilities. She calls her daughter's walk to the bus, "a political act," and indeed, it seems to be: not only does one have to be brave in the face of what-ifs when it comes to allowing the kids independence, but now apparently we have to be brave in the face of disapproving communities.

I'll try to think of these moms when it comes time for Crabkid (now almost 5) to take some steps out of the door without Mom and Dad. I'll have to think of these moms, because I don't see a lot of freedom around me. Not in my 'hood anyway. I never ever see 9-year-olds biking or skateboarding on our sidewalks without a mother or father in tow. My neighbors don't allow their son onto the front lawn by himself, even though he's in the 4th grade. I think that's scary. Don't you?

What independent moves beyond the house do you let your kids take? And at what age?


kim @ mommyknows said...

My kids walked to school on their own in about grade 2. I probably would have let them walk alone earlier if I wasn't so worried about what other parents think.

Now Sam nine, walks the neighbors 6 year old home from grade 1, with another neighbor girl aged 10. It's taken years to get this group going.

I have written several posts on walking, as a form of transportation. My kids walk to school everyday, regardless of our Canadian weather.

I feel better when there is more than one child. Safety in numbers.

I bore all my friends and neighbors with my 'walking' speech. I won't spare you!

Have you all considered, that if we all let our children walk to school, there wouldn't just be my lone kids walking down the street, there would be safety in numbers? The sidewalks would be chock-full of kids. There would be watchful eyes everywhere. Our children wouldn't be alone, they'd walk together, chat together, get exercise together, and OMG they'd even watch out for each other.

School zones wouldn't be traffic disasters. There would be far fewer cars for your child to watch out for. You'd save gas money, and lower your carbon foot print.

Your child would get daily exercise!

Would you at least consider it?


MommyKnows (I do!)

Sorry for hijacking your post CM!

kim @ mommyknows said...


I think it's VERY scary that your 4th grader neighbor isn't allowed to play unsupervised in the front garden. It's pathetic.

A reminder to everyone, Jaycee Dugard was not unsupervised when she was abducted. If I recall correctly her stepfather was present and chased the car down the street.

Genevieve said...

Right on Crabmommy.
"A mother is not a person to lean on, but a person to make leaning unnecessary."-Dorothy Canfield Fisher
There, are you happy? I got all inspirational quote"y" on your ass.

Unknown said...

I'm 33 now and I remember walking to and from elementary school by myself and with friends. In fact I met one of my best friends on that walk home one day. I never would have met her if I only had scheduled playdates and luxury transportation to shuttle me around town.
I also struggle to not be a hovering mother to my 2 year old but the more I back off the more he tries things for himself. I totally agree with you CM, and Kim too.

reginanrusty said...

i've had this conversation before and i've concluded there's simply no convincing the fearful out of their fears. no amount of discussing facts (actual # of abductions, etc) will ever change their minds.

there is hope, though, for those who walk their kids everywhere out of peer/communal pressure. i simply can't believe that ALL those parents are walking their kids b/c they think something bad will happen. it would just be too depressing if that were the case....

Crabmommy said...

I remember the walking thing you all get up to in the MommyKnows neck of the woods, and I salute you! Good for you to take it to the street, yo! And put your beliefs into action. We are sadly wayyyyy too far from Crabkid's present school for that, but when she is in middle school she will be close enough to walk.
I think your idea is brilliant. xo C

All of Us said...

What about playing in the woods or neighborhood by themselves? While we live in a fairly populated part of NJ, there are walking/biking trails that start in our neighborhood.

When we walk on those trails now I train my 5yo and 2yo to recognize and follow trail blazes as well as the map. I fully expect them both to run and explore these woods by themselves in several years.

Will they do dangerous things and probably come home with scrapes and cuts? Of course they will! But that is part of learning about their world.

kari said...

I agree with kim, safety in numbers. Walking to school or bus stop isn't an issue for us, as we live out in the country & the bus stops right at our driveway. However, I let my 3 older kids wander off together(8,8,& 5 yrs old), say at Target, to look at the toys while I shop. They know they have to stick together & look out for one another. They love that sense of freedom & independence that we give them.

I will say that in our town, I do see alot of kids walking home from school, & they seem to always be in groups.

& I remember walking to school as a kindergartner, with 2 other girls, 7 blocks one way, without my mom, & then walking home BY MYSELF(I had half days, & the girls were older).

Unknown said...

cm this is not really related to your current post but after reading it I though you might also enjoy it.

crabmommy said...

That Girl,
Thank you. That is so up my alley. I am very excited to see all this pendulum swinging away from pandering/positive uber-coddling parenting and toward some sort of authentic level-headed appraisal of what it means to raise kids well.

SZ said...

I am so scared of something bad happening to my kids I can't even make a sane comment on this one. It's not the scrapes and cuts that scare me but cars meeting little pedestrians at high speed; paedophiles snatching gorgeous little girls and boys who are never to be seen again or are left never to be the same again; someone adding my disabled daughter to the awful statistic of the 70% of kids with a disability who are sexually abused by the time they are 18. My imagination of all the terrible possibilities, no matter how remote, is brilliantly vivid and constantly fuelled by the news. My children are my responsibility and if my fear causes me to be a vigilant parent isn’t that good fear? See a totally insane comment. I just can’t let go I am a fearful control freak.

Tessa said...

I am not part of "The breeding league" so I can't offer an opinion on my own children. I can however let you know of a friend of mine who was wrapped in cotton wool her entire childhood by paranoid parents. She is now 32 years old and still living with her parents. She's never been on a date, never kissed a guy and is still a virgin (and not happy with that). The only person she sees on a regular basis is a therapist. She is too nervous to go camping, hiking, swimming in the sea and can't change a light bulb because of the "what if's". She has managed to assimilate each "warning" her parents gave her and now lives a life ruled by these crippling fears. And in case you think she just has a personailty disorder, her mother even now doesn't want her walking alone to the shops or driving too far in case "something goes wrong". You are NOT doing your children a favour by molly-coddling them and they will not thank you one day for curbing their experience of life.

Karen Stead Baigrie said...

Having been trying to weigh up these same things and feeling glad it will be a few years before I have to make these choices for real, I have been happy to see crowds of kids waiting for the bus outside our local junior school. I am not sure what the kids do when they wait for the bus and alight the bus at each of their stops but maybe it is some similar form of freedom in groups. I am glad to see the Jaycee Duggard media blitz didn't frighten the kids off of the bus.

Amanda said...

I remember my grandmother walking me to school every day in kindergarten. By first grade, I walked alone (of course, it was only three blocks away) except on days when it was raining or icy, then my father drove me.

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Its so nice to feel my grand mother's tocuh one more time. I miss her

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mercedes said...

This post raises many questions and is so thought provoking. Thank you for sharing.