Why I Let My 9 Year Old Ride The Subway Alone

This is a piece from one of my new favorite blogs, Free Range Kids. I love the comparison of New York City being as safe as Provo, Utah. I am looking forward to doing more research on the actual statistical dangers of what this world is really like these days. I am also looking forward to comparing the safety statistics from my home town when I grew up to now. I’m willing to bet it hasn’t changed much. What has definitely changed is the perceived danger.

Why FreeRange?

When I wrote a column for The New York Sun on “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Take The Subway Alone,” I figured I’d get a few e-mails pro and con.

Two days later I was on the Today Show, MSNBC, FoxNews and all manner of talk radio with a new title under my smiling face: “America’s Worst Mom?”

Yes, that’s what it took for me to learn just what a hot-button this is — this issue of whether good parents ever let their kids out of their sight. But even as the anchors were having a field day with the story, many of the cameramen and make up people were pulling me aside to say that THEY had been allowed to get around by themselves as kids– and boy were they glad. They relished the memories!

Had the world really become so much more dangerous in just one generation?Yes — in most people’s estimation. But no — not according to the evidence. Over at the think tank STATS.org, where they examine the way the media use statistics, researchers have found that the number of kids getting abducted by strangers actually holds very steady over the years. In 2006, that number was 115, and 40% of them were killed.

Any kid killed is a horrible tragedy. It makes my stomach plunge to even think about it. But when the numbers are about 50 kids in a country of 300 million, it’s also a very random, rare event. It is far more rare, for instance, than dying from a fall off the bed or other furniture. So should we, for safety’s sake, all start sleeping on the floor?

Well, upon reading that, I’m sure that some people will. But — let’s hope it doesn’t catch on. It’s crazy to limit our lives based on fear of a wildy remote danger. And yet, as I started speaking to people about kid safety in the last few days, I heard things that strike me as completely bizarre. One dad in an upscale suburb of New York, for instance, “lets” his 11-year-old walk one block to her best friend’s house –but she has to call the minute she arrives safely.

As if she’s been dodging sniper fire.

Another mom castigated me for my irresponsibility and proudly said that she doesn’t even let her daughter go to the mailbox in her upscale Atlanta neighborhood. There’s just too much “opportunity” for the girl to be snatched and killed. To her, I’m the crazy mom.

People who want me arrested for child abuse were sure that my son had dodged drug dealers, bullies, child molesters and psychopaths on that afternoon subway ride home by himself.

Believe me, if I lived in a city like that, I’d evacuate. But crime wise, New York City is actually on par with Provo, Utah — very safe.

Not that facts make any difference. Somehow, a whole lot of parents are just convinced that nothing outside the home is safe. At the same time, they’re also convinced that their children are helpless to fend for themselves. While most of these parents walked to school as kids, or hiked the woods — or even took public transportation — they can’t imagine their own offspring doing the same thing.

They have lost confidence in everything: Their neighborhood. Their kids. And their own ability to teach their children how to get by in the world. As a result, they batten down the hatches.

And then there are those who don’t.

I’m relieved to report that plenty of letters poured in with exactly the opposite viewpoint. There were more of these, in fact, than the naysayers. Parents from all over the country wrote, “Bravo!” “You’re not a bad mom!” And, “Good for you and good for your son!”

I loved getting these emails and hearing what these parents (and grandparents and friends and relatives) let their little loved ones do, but plenty of them also mentioned the dubious reactions of the other people in their community — sometimes even the other person in their bed.

So I started this site for anyone who thinks that kids need a little more freedom and would like to connect to people who feel the same way.

We are not daredevils. We believe in life jackets and bike helmets and air bags. But we also believe in independence.

Children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage. The overprotected life is stunting and stifling, not to mention boring for all concerned.

So here’s to Free Range Kids, raised by Free Range Parents willing to take some heat. I hope this web site encourages us all to think outside the house.

–Lenore

And here is the original piece that Lenore is referencing to above:

Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone

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.

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.

“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 safetynet4kids.com, 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.

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 STATS.org, 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.”

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.

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2 comments

  1. Beth · August 18, 2008

    I love your blog – thank you for bringing this up.

    I can;t say I agree with the idea that mom had. But my decisions are based only on my life and living where I have and having worked where I have. Growing up near LA didn;t help either. To me (just my humble opinion) – the “oops he didn’t make it home because that stranger DID decide to take him instead of catching their ride home” is not acceptable to me. Yes, bad things happen. Absolutely – even under the closest eyes. But for me – and mine – I want to be able to say I did my best to protect my children the best way I knew how.

    Great article.

  2. chandra · August 13, 2008

    Hmm…

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