Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Reality Or Perception?

Before I get started on this post, I wanted to say thank you to all of the great thoughts and insights in the previous post.

I have recently had an experience that generated much discussion in my family over how dangerous the world really is.

Scene: Neighborhood park 2.5 blocks from my house. I am there with my 9 year old nephew, 4 year old nephew and LB - age 15 months. Unfortunately, our German Shepherd is also there with us after escaping out of the backyard. He is overly excited (because my nephews keep squealing every time he gets close making them great squeaky toys) and keeps running up and down on the play equipment - something he usually avoids. I don't have a leash and have decided the best thing to do is to leave the kids at the park and run home with the dog. I could take LB with me, but she would slow me down a great deal. I decide to leave the 9 year old in charge and tell him I will be less than 5 minutes. The oldest is nervous about being without an adult (and would not have agreed had the dog not been also very scary) so I point out a house across the street where there are obviously some adults home and tell him to run to that house if he gets scared for any reason.

I take the dog home, I am back in less than 5 minutes and everyone is well. I sit on the sidelines while my nephews crawl all over the play equipment for the next 30 minutes and occasionally assist LB in some minor adventures of her own.

Later, I tell my sister (my nephews' mother) about our adventures. She is shocked that I would not only leave a 9 year old in charge of a 4 year old and a 15 monty old, but says she wouldn't have even left her two kids alone in a neighborhood park for 5 minutes.

That starts which is to me a very disturbing conversation. The nine year old isn't even allowed, for example, to hang out in the toy aisle of a Target while she spends 20 minutes shopping. I spend the rest of the day - and on to the next - wondering if A) the world really is so much more dangerous than when were kids and B) how my nephews will cope with the world as they grow up if they continue to be so sheltered.

I don't know what was bothering me more - the thought that my nephews may grow up without the skills they need* or that there really is a boogy-man out to get LB.

Since that conversation, I have done a small amount of research at it appears that violent crime rates are actually lower than when I was a kid. There doesn't seem to be good data about abductions - especially from before 1980, but one fact that is often repeated is that there were 115 "stereotypical" abductions of children in a particular year (1999?). These were cases where a stranger kidnapped a child to murder, assault or keep the child. The other nearly 800,000 cases were abductions by family members, acquaintances (still scary), runaways and throw-aways (abandoned children or children that went missing and the parents didn't report it).

If there were only 115 stranger abductions that would put the likelihood of getting abducted at a little greater than the chance of getting struck by lightning.

Of course, if it happens to you, it doesn't matter what the statistics are. I wonder, though, how careful should we be? Is it crippling for a 9 year old to be afraid of being alone? I remember the first time I walked to the store alone. It was about 10 blocks from home along a very busy street. It was such a proud moment that I remember like it was yesterday. I was 5 years old. Many years later I learned that my father followed me that first time to make sure I was being careful, but I went on to walk even farther to school (I may have been as old as 9) and to ride my bike across town with my 11 year old sister to my grandparents house, among other adventures.

My memory is from the perspective of a child, but I remember our neighborhood being full of children riding bikes, playing games, running from house to house - only to return home at dusk. I don't remember adults doing more than checking in once in awhile. Well, that and feeding us when we got hungry.

I asked a slightly older friend of mine what she would have done in the above scenario. She agreed with me but added her children would have agreed with my sister. She added, "It is the age of paranoia."

What do you think? Are we protecting our children by constant vigilance or are we hurting a generation of children by being so afraid? Is the world really that much more dangerous or is it our perception? How are you raising / planning on raising your children?

*A part of the story I left out in order not to color your initial reaction is that the previous 30 minutes were spent trying to coax the 4 year old out of the coat closet because he missed his mom and the older one out of the bathroom because he couldn't deal with the younger one "having a meltdown".


Caro said...

I think we're over cautious and it's a bad thing. From what I've heard the UK is nearly as bad as the US for this with everyone driving their kids to school even if it's only a couple of blocks.

One of the reasons I like Denmark is that it doesn't seem to have got that bad (yet). You still see fairly young kids cycling to school on their own.

Leah Maya Benjamin said...

Well I probably dont' even need to comment you already know,i won't leave my child with anyone. I would have I dont' know exactly what but if my child had been left in a park, no I would have completely freaked out. I don't think we are making kids anyway maybe somewhat more into the world around them. YOu know my mom she doens't stress about anything and brought me up like that, I am scared of lots of things and I certainly wasnt' brought up like that at all. so basically no my child is in my site where hopefully I can protect the best I can and when she is older give her the knowledge to have fun adn be as safe as possible too. Oh Kami I can't beleive your sister didn't just scream at you and leave.
I should note I never lived anywhere that was a neighborhood so ther was never any going to play at someones house without driving, or the whole sneaking out at night, where would I have went, walked 10 miles in the dark somewhere.

Sunny said...

That is a toughie. As with everything, I think there is a balance. You don't want to teach a child that the world is unsafe and dangerous. However, it's important to teach them how to identify certain people/situations that might be. There are parents that fall on either side of this balance, I'm sure. Hopefully I'll end up somewhere in the middle. :)

In your case, I think whether I left to secure the dog would have depended on how much I trusted the 9 year old to make good decisions.

Anonymous said...

I think that a 9-year-old is a bit young to be in charge of other, smaller kids. A 13-year-old, maybe. And there's no way I would ever leave my child alone in the toy aisle of any store. There are too many predators and sickos out there. Statistics be damned - the stories that stick in my head are the ones where the child is groped in the aisle or lured into a bathroom and raped.

I read recently that 91 percent of children who are victims of stranger abduction are killed within the first 24 hours. I am not willing to take that chance, no matter how small the risk of abduction may be. I never take my eyes off my son in public places (he's four). Never.

Like you, I grew up with a lot of freedom. It's sad that my son won't have that freedom, but we don't live in a neighborhood with lots of kids, so he wouldn't be outside running wild like I was anyway. I make sure he has lots of kid interaction time. I think he'll turn out just fine.

battynurse said...

I like Sunny's comment. I too remember first bike rides to the store and around the block by myself and how exciting it was. I was about 7 and it was when we had moved to a smaller neighborhood that had the little corner store etc. I think my mom was really nervous but she let me go. I remember by the time I was in my teens I could go ride my bike anywhere and usually went quite a long distance. I had of course been taught to not talk to strangers and not go with them etc. I was more afraid of who might come into the house at night and take me away thanks to my mom and some of her more crazy religious teaching.
To some extent yes I think that things are worse today than they were when I was a kid but I also don't want my child to live in constant fear. When I lived in Wa I knew my neighborhood pretty well and many of my neighbors and thought nothing of going out for a walk after dark with the dog. Same with years ago when I lived downtown Portland. Fear often can be crippling which isn't good either.

Amy said...

I guess I'm in the minority because I believe parents coddle their children too much these days. And when those children grow up, they are unprepared for the world around them.

As an example, my DH manages some "kids" at work. They are about 17 - 20. He had to write one girl up for something valid...she couldn't take the critisim (sp?) and had her MOM call my DH!

I do think there is need to teach children about the dangers around them, and what to do...think "Stranger Danger"..but I don't think that leaving a 9 year old in charge is crazy.

Kami said...

I should have said that my 9 year old, while not what I would call brave, is very cautious with LB. When we are at house he is often the first to spot a potential danger (a choking hazard toy, heading for the stairs, etc.)

I would also be lying if I didn't think about the possible worst case scenarios while I was gone. I had to remind myself that the chances are quite small. A more realistic worry was that someone would get hurt, but I think that was pretty unlikely in such a short period too.

Anonymous - I saw that stat too in Newsweek. After a brief internet search I think they meant to say that kids stolen by strangers who are killed are killed within 24 hours. Even child abduction websites never had numbers that high.

That is an interesting point . . . does the media publish scary stats more often than reassuring ones?

Virginia said...

I don't think I would have left a 9-year-old in charge - I would have made them come home with me. I do let my 8-year-old browse the toy aisles at Target while I am in the vicinity, a few aisles away. Within earshot.

I will let her go to the bathroom in a public place alone, depending on where we are. A small restaurant? Fine. A large mall? No.

My 4-year-old? I want to know where he is at all times. I'll let him go into our front yard with his sister, back yard by himself.

I hope I've got a balance, but I don't know. I try not to be overprotective, but I'm sure I am.

Anonymous said...

From Musicmakermomma.livejournal.com
Open ID not working for me!

Great post. I agree that most parents are so scared (and I certainly understand why) they are overprotective. I try to assess the REAL risk of a situation and decide what to do.

I have left my son alone in the toy aisle, starting about age 6. At first I would only go a few aisles over, but now I'll tell him where I'll be, and just check in every 15 minutes or so. He knows to avoid strangers and we know the clerks at this large store, so he would go to them if some weirdo was roaming.

In your situation, I don't know if I would have left a 9 year old who was afraid to be alone in charge. But it sounds like you had no idea he had never been alone before. I WOULD have felt comfortable leaving my son in charge (8 in one month) in that situation, but only if he felt ok about it.

I hate that we as a society are so afraid - the 1 mile I used to walk to school (through nice neighborhood and park) would be considered shocking child abuse today.

Jill said...

Well, I would never have left someone's else's kid unattended like that. I don't think you have the right to make that decision for someone else. Not trying to be harsh, but...

I think a 9 year old is too young to be left in charge of smaller kids like that.

It would also never occur to me to leave a kid for 20 minutes somewhere else at a store. But I don't have a 9 year old, so we'll see when I get there.

When I was little, we rode our bikes on a busy road to swim practice every morning - only about 8 blocks, but still. I was probably 9 and my sister was 6. And we'd stay at the pool all day long. Our mom would show up at lunch time and bring food and hang out for a few hours, and then she'd go home. We'd go home for dinner.

I was the oldest in our neighborhood and I always led all of the kids up the street to the 7-11 type store that was probably 6 blocks away. Again, I was probably 9.

But, I just think it's a different world now. And it's not even just about abduction. I think it's more about neighbors not just looking out for each other. I feel like we could have stopped at other houses along the way if we needed something. I don't feel like that's the case now. People aren't home. Moms don't stay home with kids. No one's out in front yards anymore. Hell, we dont' even have sidewalks on big roads around here.

Do I think this is ruining kids? No. Kids are growing up WAY too fast without being allowed to be out on their own at 9 years old. Kids are having sex at 12 years old. Drinking and doing drugs in middle school. Seeing stuff on TV and movies that we never would have seen til college. I dont' think kids are sheltered just because we don't leave them alone out in the world. I think they need to feel protected by their parents because when they are "out there" there's way too much grown up stuff to deal with.

Anyway... I am glad it all worked out for you and I hope your sister (now I've forgotten whose kids they were) isn't too mad about it all.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I have such mixed feelings about all of it because I live in the suburbs of a very walkable area outside of a big city. My husband and I have talked about it a little. For example, there is a trolley stop down the street and when she's a teenager we would like to be able to show her how to take the trolley to the mall. There are a lot of kids that ride their bikes and go to the parks to play and I'm still undecided about how free I feel about all that. I get freaked out when I hear about how you can look up people who have been convicted of sexual crimes and such online only to learn there is a convicted pedophile living 3 blocks away. If I think to much about it I get all freaked out and scared out of my mind.

Lori Lavender Luz said...

This is such an important topic, and I tend to think along the same lines as you.

I once read an article about how we distort statistics in our heads. Partly, it's the 24-hour news cycle that amplifies the rare horrific cases and make them seem hundreds of thousands of times more prevalent than they are.

Conversely, the risk of obesity and heart disease in kids(due to lack of walking and playing -- as mentioned before, kids in yesteryears were more likely to get to and from school on their own power) is something we can easily dismiss. But it is substantial.

Also, I don't want the freshman year of college to be the first time my kids feel up to decision making and being responsible for themselves. I want them to gradually come to this point while I can observe and assist.

On a scale of 1-10 of free range kidness, I hope to be an 8.

Tracy said...

Interesting post, and I don't have the time to comment like I'd like to, but my first reaction was shock that you left them. Of course, I'm not familiar with your neighborhood...

Then I read your perspective, and you are right on a lot of points. It's very good food for thought. I remember walking to the Burger King three blocks from my house by myself when I was 7 years old. I was fine...and you are right, our parents didn't hover.

I don't know...I'll probably land somewhere in the middle.

Sara said...

I walked to school by myself or with my sister when I was 7 (my sister was 8). It was over 1/2 mile. Other than school, we were allowed to range freely over a four-block area, including a small woodlot. I loved my childhood.

Are we damaging our kids or protecting them? Probably both. Here's the thing: the world HAS changed. When I was a child (and we're about the same age, so when you were a child too), there were loose kids roaming everywhere. So, even if the boogie man was in town, the chances of your kid becoming a target were really low. Nowadays, unattended kids are a rare thing indeed, so I can't help but think there's a somewhat greater risk that if someone is looking for a child to grab, they'll tend to take the unattended child. In other words, it used to be 115 out of a zillion, now it's 115 out of the 200 or so kids that are ever unguarded in the USA. (Of course that's not true either--guarded kids do sometimes get kidnapped as well.) Realistically, though, putting a child in a car is a much riskier activity than letting them play alone in a park for a few minutes. I agree that we sometimes prioritize emotion over reason when evaluating risks to our children

I really agonize about this. I want Eggbert to enjoy the same freedom and adventures that I did as a child, but I also have trouble thinking about letting her roam freely all over town at age 7. In fact, I'm currently debating whether I am willing to hire my friend's 16-year-old daughter as a babysitter. She's 16! Only two years away from legal adulthood, and yet the thought gives me pause. Sigh.

Summer said...

I have mixed feelings about this, too. I grew up with extremely overprotective parents. They never would have left me alone even for 5 minutes at the park, much less in charge of smaller kids. But, they were so overprotective that it made me have less confidence in the things I could do. They couldn't trust me with responsibilities and so I didn't believe I could handle them. By the time I went away to college, I was excited to be on my own but it was also very frightening because there were a lot of situations I had never been in without them around and I felt at a loss as to what to do a lot of the time.

With TK, I'm trying not to be overprotective with him as my parents are with me. I hope he will gain the confidence I didn't have to do things even if it means he might hurt himself a little in the process. And yet, I'm not sure what that means in terms of what I will let him do and at what age. I would never forgive myself if I left TK alone in a situation that ended up with something horrible happening.

As for the situation you were in, it seems that your nephew might not have been ready to take on the responsibility of watching the younger kids just because that kind of thing was not something he is used to doing because his parents do not let him do things like that. If you had known, do you think you would have left them there?

Is the world a more dangerous place? I don't know. Sometimes I think it was always pretty dangerous but there was no widespread, 24 hours, internet coverage to disseminate the news about stranger abductions, etc, so people just weren't aware of it happening. There are never news stories about things like, a woman left her nephews and daughter at the neighborhood park for 5 minutes and nothing happened. We only would have heard your story if something bad had happened.

MrsSpock said...

I don't think I would have left someone else's 9 yr old in charge- mostly because people are very weird nowadays about that sort of thing.

Growing up, we roamed the immediate neighborhood, but most mothers were staying at home in our very Catholic neighborhood, so there really wasn't such thing as "unattended". If you were up to no good, some elderly lady was just as likely to put you in your place.

We all started baby sitting at age 11-12. My 11 yr old neighbor babysat the 5 of us all summer alone, and we were ages 1-7. I don't think I would let one of the neighborhood girls do so alone, but I would hire them to be a mother's helper if we were around, or going for a quick errand.

I have a cousin who survived two stranger abductions by the time she was 16. In high school, there were two attempted stranger abductions in my neighborhood. I was once chased to my parking garage after work when I was in college by a stranger. Because of this, I am wary. I know the statistics are small, but much like my son's birth, when it happens to you, it becomes very possible. I admit to being paranoid. My son is too small to roam free as yet, but when he's older, I prefer an adult or teenager to be around until he reaches 10 or so.

Archer's Mommy said...

I wish it were still the days of kids playing alone, but even then I watched my 4 year old brother almost get snatched in front of at least 5 other bigger kids. That was the early 70's in Dallas.
Maybe I'm paranoid, but for me, like many others, the risk is just too high. I also worry about them just getting molested. We moved to a small town and I know it is safer than Dallas, or LA (where we moved from) but I still have my worries. I have the "Perv Map of Sylva" bookmarked and look at the faces every once in awhile, just in case.
Again, though, there is a fine line between paranoia and keeping our kids safe, and I'm sure I'll learn as I go. Right now I think 11/12 is about as early as I would leave them alone though, but that's just me and maybe I'll change my mind later.

Smiling said...

Taking some time to catch up on blogs.. and read this one that is close to my heart.

Like you, I really believe in giving kids chances to develop independence and skills. I think that are real risks in trying to avoid the horrid but very rare risks out there. As you said, if something horrid happens to your family, it really doesn't matter much how unlikely it was to happen.

I hear what people are saying about making decisions about another person's child... but I also remember that as a kid I spent DAYS at other family's houses and they had different rules and ways of doing things and I learned heaps from it. There are always lines that can't be crossed... but I felt that I grew a lot by having chances to try out more scary things at a friend's house (like crawling on roofs, feeding large farm animals, exploring the forest, lighting candles for dinner with real matches, etc.).

I have since moved to New Zealand and am often struck by how different the expectations are here for kids. Many kids seem much older to me in their independence (walking to the corner shop to buy milk at 7, taking public buses to school at 8, teenagers wandering home much later than I was allowed) but also they are less adult in that sexual way that I sometimes say back home. The teenagers are still pretty playful and kid like in some ways, but often surprise me with the everday life skills they have from an early stage. I am not convinced that gradually taking on more responsibility in any way makes a kid 'grow up to fast'.

If/what I am a parent, I don't really know how I'll handle this line. Typically when I am in charge of other people's kids, I tend to call when I am considering a gray area... On other hands, with some of my friends over protected kids I have actually purposely set up situations where they think that they are alone, but I am watching from a distance. As a kid I found it much less scary to be in those situations with an adult in charge who THOUGHT it was safe than with my mother who I thought didn't... I was much easier to just try to handle it if I knew someone wiser than me thought it was fine. There have also been cases where I think it was CRAZY that I had been allowed to be in charge of certain things at certain ages, but I knew I had to step up to the plate and I did. I now am pretty confident in all sorts of situations and one of my favourite things is to walk alone through cities and use its public transport.

I guess it will always be hard for society not to over protect when it is unthinkable to 'live with' the 1 in the million horrid thing, but we can avoid looking at the mild side effects that nearly every one then has like not having the joy and adventure of walking across town by yourself and developing the skills to do so.

Really interesting question...