Friday, April 11, 2008

Allowing in a Culture of Fear

Now this is a sign of the times. A lady let her nine-year-old kid ride the subway by himself. She gave him money and trusted him to figure out how to get where he was going. Expected that if he didn't know what to do, he'd ask someone.

People freaked.

From the New York Sun:
I left my 9-year-old at Bloomingdale’s (the original one) a couple weeks ago. Last seen, he was in first floor handbags as I sashayed out the door.

Bye-bye! Have fun!

And he did. He came home on the subway and bus by himself.

Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn’t strike me as that daring, either. Isn’t New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It’s not like we’re living in downtown Baghdad.

Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn’t want to lose it. And no, I didn’t trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”

Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.

Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating — for us and for them. Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone

Listen, I want to give this lady a big sloppy kiss. When we were kids we did stuff. Nine years old, we'd wander to a different neighborhood, maybe on our bikes if it was far, we'd play with some other kids, climb a mountain, whatever. What's happened to us?

Read more, this lady is wonderful.
And yet —

“How would you have felt if he didn’t come home?” a New Jersey mom of four, Vicki Garfinkle, asked.

Guess what, Ms. Garfinkle: I’d have been devastated. But would that just prove that no mom should ever let her child ride the subway alone?

No. It would just be one more awful but extremely rare example of random violence, the kind that hyper parents cite as proof that every day in every way our children are more and more vulnerable.

Mmmwwaaahh! Lady, I love you!

It looks like I'm going to copy this whole article here, it's just too good.
“Carlie Brucia — I don’t know if you’re familiar with that case or not, but she was in Florida and she did a cut-through about a mile from her house ... and midday, at 11 in the morning, she was abducted by a guy who violated her several times, killed her, and left her behind a church.”

That’s the story that the head of, Katharine Francis, immediately told me when I asked her what she thought of my son getting around on his own. She runs a company that makes wallet-sized copies of a child’s photo and fingerprints, just in case.

Well of course I know the story of Carlie Brucia. That’s the problem. We all know that story — and the one about the Mormon girl in Utah and the one about the little girl in Spain — and because we do, we all run those tapes in our heads when we think of leaving our kids on their own. We even run a tape of how we’d look on Larry King.

“I do not want to be the one on TV explaining my daughter’s disappearance,” a father, Garth Chouteau, said when we were talking about the subway issue.

Look at what we have become. We are afraid of our own shadows.

Here is where she gets analytical about it, I believe this is the crux and cause of this situation:
These days, when a kid dies, the world — i.e., cable TV — blames the parents. It’s simple as that. And yet, Trevor Butterworth, a spokesman for the research center, said, “The statistics show that this is an incredibly rare event, and you can’t protect people from very rare events. It would be like trying to create a shield against being struck by lightning.”

Contrast the incredibly low probability of something bad happening to a kid to the sense of independence, the learning experience of controlling their own life, that they get from being allowed to do things. Somehow it has become the norm in America to avoid doing anything with any risk in it whatsoever, we interpret everything in the most terrifying way possible.

It seems to me there is value in accumulating experience, do you think?
Justice Department data actually show the number of children abducted by strangers has been going down over the years. So why not let your kids get home from school by themselves?

“Parents are in the grip of anxiety and when you’re anxious, you’re totally warped,” the author of “A Nation of Wimps,” Hara Estroff Marano, said. We become so bent out of shape over something as simple as letting your children out of sight on the playground that it starts seeming on par with letting them play on the railroad tracks at night. In the rain. In dark non-reflective coats.

The problem with this everything-is-dangerous outlook is that over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can’t do anything on his own eventually can’t.

Meantime, my son wants his next trip to be from Queens. In my day, I doubt that would have struck anyone as particularly brave. Now it seems like hitchhiking through Yemen.

Here’s your MetroCard, kid. Go.

Great statement: over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself. We are raising a generation of incompetent people. And are we any safer for it?

What's amazing here is not that a lady let her kid ride the subway, but the reaction she gets. People think this is child abuse, letting a kid have some independence, trusting him to think for himself, letting him make a decision. It seems to me that in a few years, a kid like this is going to own the world, and his scaredy-cat little friends will only be able to do what somebody tells them they can do.

I expect there will be differences of opinion about this one, and in fact my expectation is that opinions will not break down along the usual conservative-versus-liberal lines -- or will they? We live under an administration that has cultivated fear, maybe allowing your kid to do something on his or her own has become a political act.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I generally agree with your point here although I think a 9-year-old on the subway in NYC was probably unwise. I remember missing a stop on the NYC subway back in my early twenties and having a knife pulled on me. Still, it depends on many factors specific to the kid and the situation and the parents are best positioned to make that decision.

BTW, here in way over-regulated MC, I believe there are laws about how old a kid can be to be left home alone and left alone in public places.

April 11, 2008 11:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Working with LGBT youth in Virginia, it's striking how many parents don't let their 17-year-olds ride the metro, and how many youth, even if permitted, are afraid to do so.


April 11, 2008 11:40 AM  
Blogger Dana Beyer, M.D. said...

In 1960 I began riding the buses and subways in NY on my own. By the time I hit 12 I had been all over the city, from Coney Island to The Cloisters to Van Cortland Park, with friends or alone.

As was pointed out, the odds of a "stranger abduction" are less than being hit by lightning. We live in a nation of 300 million, and Fox News's obsession with a single abducted pretty white girl in Aruba is part of the Republican plan of fear-mongering to create a unitary executive.

Of course, the odds of being exposed to a pre-op trans woman in the Rio locker room is even less, but that doesn't stop the fear-mongerers.

April 11, 2008 11:44 AM  
Blogger Tish said...

We need to foster our children's competencies. In my last neighborhood my children couldn't walk to school safely because of a road that separated our neighborhood from the school. they saw the children on the other side of the road walking to school and they really wanted to walk to school. My older son was starting second grade and my younger son was starting Kindergarten when we moved to this neighborhood. The elementary school is two blocks away, on back-of-the-neighborhood roads, with sidewalks. My sons couldn't walk home then because Kindergarten students cannot leave the classroom unless they are walked to the bus by an older child or picked up at the classroom door by a parent who has checked in at the school office, gotten a pass, and gone to the classroom to fetch him. However, they could walk to school alone! After the youngest went on to first grade, they loved the freedom of leaving school and walking home alone. However, I have neighbors whose children are going through all 6 years of elementary school without ever being allowed to do this.

Being able to navigate their own world is part of the skill set we should want them to have.

April 11, 2008 12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a point that our modern society has missed with the phenomena of helicoptering parents. We should be raising kids to become adults not dependents.

April 11, 2008 1:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the woman is nuts. It's not that I disagree with her point about teaching our children independence and self-sufficiency but nine-years-old is too young.

I, too, grew up in NYC in the 1960s. In Fourth Grade I was allowed to walk to elementary school with a friend/classmate. One day a child molester approached us and talked her (but not me) into his apartment, claiming that my friend was the same size as his daughter and that he wanted to measure her for a skirt he was making for his daughter. My friend fell for it and was raped. (This was never reported to the police, by the way).

You may think that a child that age should not fall for such a line but the reality is that a nine-year-old or ten-year-old can be pursuaded by an adult's lies.

I would have no problem with the subway story if the child was twelve-years-old and had been informed properly of the kinds of lines that predators use. I also think Mom should have given him the cell phone.

Friend in VA

April 11, 2008 2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, that should have been "persuaded." (How come there is no edit feature?)

I wanted to add that I believe adults should carry cell phones, too, if possible, for safety reasons.

Friend in VA (liberal but generally, not nanny-liberal)

April 11, 2008 2:36 PM  
Blogger Dana Beyer, M.D. said...

I think a rigid age cut-off is useless. Some nine-year-olds are more mature than some of the adult Anons on this blog. It should be part of the usual parent-child negotiation, the goal of which is to foster independent, authentic, well-adjusted adults.

April 11, 2008 3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Some nine-year-olds are more mature than some of the adult Anons on this blog."

And a good number of them are more intelligent than DB, MD.

April 11, 2008 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My son and daughter both learned to ride buses in MC around the age of 12 to get home from school if they missed the school bus and to take metro shortly thereafter. I have seen kids who look younger than 12 taking metro to school.

I used to take a bus from home and go to the kiddy movie matinee on Saturdays in Philly when I was 10 and also go downtown to my dad's store on the bus and subway. I guess I feel it was safer in those days. I would be concerned letting a 10 year old go to the movies alone now-although nothing ever happened to me. There were real ushers then and I imagine an adult coming in- without a child- to the kiddie matinee would have been suspect- the theater was always full of kids- I don't remember any adults but some must have been there.

April 11, 2008 3:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure that I would advocate rigid age cutoffs either (I was the kind of kid who probably would not have gone off with anyone -- though that was from shyness and distrust of grownups more than any good qualities) but as a general rule I do not believe that preadolescents have high enough analytical skills to keep themselves safe in society without adult supervision.

From my own experiences, I do not buy that the world was safer back when I was growing up. I think quite a lot happened that was swept under the rug.

Friend in VA

April 11, 2008 3:47 PM  
Blogger Dana Beyer, M.D. said...

I agree with you; I don't think it was safer then, I think we are just more aware of the reality now and are willing to report it. I don't believe rapes and child abductions, etc., have gone up, except on a total population basis; they are just being reported more often because the consequences are not as dire. That is, today people listen and don't dismiss you out of hand.

I was more than mature enough at 8-12 to handle the subway alone, and I learned that when approached by a threatening adult that I should move into a crowd. That was usually possible in the subways.

Subsequently I have travelled around the world three times, and have worked abroad on a number of occasions. Had I been sheltered I doubt I would have had either the courage or desire to do so.

April 11, 2008 4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are we advocating here? I do not know anything about the woman or his son, but I am perplexed about her value system. In the name of liberation or independence, she trusts her son getting home but not trusting her son enough to give him a cell phone. If he can lose the cell phone on an important trip of coming home, he is probably at risk at getting lost.
Clearly to me, she sees a cell phone more valuable than her son. She has a mess-up value system.

April 15, 2008 1:57 PM  
Blogger Dana Beyer, M.D. said...

Anon, I'm glad you've chimed in to make your absurd moral values clear to us all. Your take-away moral of this story is: "Clearly to me, she sees a cell phone more valuable than her son. She has a mess-up value system."

This is the kind of reading comprehension they routinely test in the fifth grade. Guess what? You just failed.

April 16, 2008 12:02 AM  

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