Kids Those Days, Parents These Days

Back when I was a kid, and dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I spent about a week one summer staying with a great-aunt in Arlington, VA. I don't remember exactly when-- some time in the early 1980's-- and I don't remember where my parents and sister were at the time. I recall that they came down later and picked me up at the end of the trip, but not what they were doing while I was there by myself.

Anyway, since I was in the DC area, and nerdy as hell even as a pre-teen, I wanted to see a bunch of the Smithsonian museums. My great-aunt never had any interest in that sort of thing (she did take me on the tour of the Treasury and FBI buildings, though). So, she drew me a map of the Mall, gave me a few bucks to buy lunch with, and dropped me at the Air and Space Museum in the morning, with instructions to meet her at the Natural History Museum that afternoon.

It was one of the highlights of my trip-- I got to poke around the Air and Space museum at leisure, had lunch in the cafeteria, then set off with my map to go see dinosaurs. I made an unscheduled stop at the National Archives, just because I happened to pass it on the way between museums, and it was much cooler because I thought of it myself than if I had been escorted there. It was a great day, and one of my best memories of the whole trip.

It's also the first thing I thought of when I ran across the 9-year-old on the subway kerfuffle of last week.

Now, to be fair, I'm pretty sure I was older than nine at the time (I really don't recall how old I was, though), and getting from one side of the Mall to the other isn't exactly urban orienteering. And even back in the idyllic days of the early 80's, my mother was kind of freaked out when she heard the story (she does tend to worry...).

Still, I'm pretty much with Lenore Skenazy on the general issue of over-protective parenting these days. Reading baby books in preparation for FutureBaby's arrival has really amplified this feeling-- given the sheer number of things that are sources of CERTAIN DEATH, it's a miracle I made it to junior high, let alone to the verge of parenthood.

I grew up out in the sticks, but when I was a kid, we routinely spent summer days playing in the woods a half-mile from our house, on the other side of a flood control dam. This was not without its dangers, even beyond the chance that we might fall out of a tree or into the lake-- one time, we had a dog get caught in an animal trap, and on another occasion, some deer hunters pointed a gun at us. Still, that's what we did for fun, much of the time-- we'd go over into the woods, and tromp around through miles of woods, and when it started to get close to meal time, one of our parents would come to the top of the dike and yell for us to come home. We all made it out alive, and unscathed.

So, I'm going to do my best to avoid freaking out when FutureBaby shows up, and gets to the age when he or she wants a little independence, I'll try to respect that. I don't think I'll be dropping the kid off at the Met, and meeting them later at the Natural History Museum on the other side of Central Park, but that's mostly because we don't live in The City, and if we make a museum run, I'm going, too.

(And as for the subway, Lord knows, I saw kids who looked nine-ish on the trains in Tokyo all the time, so it's not like they lack the cognitive ability to navigate public transit by themselves. Given some base of experience, I don't doubt that a nine-year-old could get around in New York just fine.)

Of course, I might end up changing my mind a few years down the road. Enough people have told me enough times that becoming a parent changes everything-- maybe that's one of the things. I hope I can maintain enough perspective to allow FutureBaby to run around outside without constant supervision, though.

And one of the things I like about our neighborhood in Niskayuna is that I do see kids running around outside like, well, kids. Kate and Emmy and I don't approve of the people who let their ten-year-old walk their Alaskan Husky by himself (Emmy especially disapproves when the kid is on a Razor scooter being towed by the dog), but that's because the kid isn't big enough to control the dog, not because we're afraid that evil ninjas are going to leap out of the trees and snatch the kid. It's a nice neigborhood, and there's no reason kids can't play outside without an adult watching every second.

So count me as at least tentatively in support of Free Range Kids. For now.

(We did give in and buy the expensive foam crib mattress, though, because soft equals death. It's hard as a freakin' rock-- I still say coffee table books would've been an economical substitute...)

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I'm kind of surprised that this would be an issue in NYC. IIRC, my dad used public transport to get to school from an early age. like, making bus transfers, and maybe taking the subway, I'm not sure.

I didn't think that NYC HAD school busses, I thought the kids just walked, or used public transit...

My dad (born 1923) grew up in New York City. He tells me that in the morning he would head out the door, and in the afternoon he would return home when he got hungry enough to figure it was time for lunch. After lunch, repeat performance, returning when his stomach told him it was supper time. I (born 1955) grew up in Michigan, Tennessee, and Rhode Island, and in each community I behaved pretty much the same way as my father had. Hours would go by without my parents having any idea of where I was. Oddly, I treat my daughter (born 1989) completely differently. I always know where she is, and she never goes anywhere by herself. Neither first hand experience nor family history have demonstrated my world to be an unsafe one, yet I have raised my child as if it were. Media influence? Maybe. I read or hear of each child abduction or murder, rare as it may be in a given community, so each year I am exposed to news accounts of dozens of attacks upon children. Nasty side effect of the Global Village, I guess.

I would think it generally boils down to whether or not you can trust the kid. If you can trust the kid not to walk to dangerous areas (which, when I was a kid growing up, it was certainly possible to do) you can trust him not to take a subway to dangerous areas.

When I was 9 my parents were letting me roam over a pretty wide territory on my bicycle, and if I'd really had a mind to, I could have biked to some pretty hellacious (then; the areas are very much on an upswing today) regions.

When I was a freshman in high school, I was taking public transport-- not school busses-- to get to and from school, too, now that I think about it. What's freshman age, thirteen?

By John Novak (not verified) on 15 Apr 2008 #permalink

I would think it generally boils down to whether or not you can trust the kid. If you can trust the kid not to walk to dangerous areas (which, when I was a kid growing up, it was certainly possible to do) you can trust him not to take a subway to dangerous areas.

When I was 9 my parents were letting me roam over a pretty wide territory on my bicycle, and if I'd really had a mind to, I could have biked to some pretty hellacious (then; the areas are very much on an upswing today) regions.

When I was a freshman in high school, I was taking public transport-- not school busses-- to get to and from school, too, now that I think about it. What's freshman age, thirteen?

By John Novak (not verified) on 15 Apr 2008 #permalink

I suspect you'll do ok keeping dangers in perspective. (IMHO, being a scientist or engineer helps you keep perspective because you deal with probability all the time, so you have a leg up in this department.) I agree with Ms. Skenazy about the 24-hour news channels. A local random tragedy becomes a global news story for days. And there's a new one every week.

Good luck with FutureBaby.

By marciepooh (not verified) on 15 Apr 2008 #permalink

my parents apparently trusted me, I was 12 in Istanbul when my mother got fed up with me, gave me handful of money and sent me back to the hotel (via a movie theater and a large number of back alleys) by myself.

Back when I was a kid, and dinosaurs roamed the Earth

So there WERE dinosaurs when man was alive!!!!!

Seriously, you'll be nervous a lot, or at least some, and it depends a lot on the kid, but even my liberal person thinks we are taking a lot of fun and experience away from most kids, albeit saving a very small number of lives. But if it saved my kid.....

Just wait till they learn to drive! Course by then, any efffect you have on them should have taken.

When my family moved into Manhattan in 1960, the city was in one of its periodic teenager panics (think West Side Story, or Google the Capeman). That may have influenced my parents' choice to put 10-year-old me into a private school, but they had no hesitation in sending me there by bus and subway. IIRC, current NYC crime stats approach those of the early 1960s.

By Monte Davis (not verified) on 15 Apr 2008 #permalink

It's pretty silly for folks in the media to decry the nanny state and then carry on when parents are doing their best to produce a responsible adult out of a child rather than one that will need a nanny state to function.

They ARE going to leave home sometime. Will they be paralyzed by fear, like a chicken out in the open, or oblivious to real danger when they do? Adults get kidnapped and murdered too. Are you more likely to end up like that girl in Aruba if you never learned to recognize danger as a kid by operating in an ever-widening territory?

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 15 Apr 2008 #permalink

the idyllic days of the early 80's

That would be my junior high and high school years. We lived in Miami, and that was the era of the cocaine cowboys and Marielitos (there was a wave of refugees from Cuba in 1980 which included, on Castro's orders, many criminals and nut cases). Perhaps you remember Miami Vice, or have read Carl Hiaasen novels--they are only slight exaggerations of 1980s Miami.

From first grade I always walked to school, either by myself or with younger sibling(s) in tow, to schools that were at least a half mile away. (In those days in Dade County, you were on your own if you were within two miles of your school and the trip did not involve crossing multilane highways.) I switched to bike in junior high. Our family was not by any stretch of the imagination unusual in that regard. We got the usual warnings to avoid accepting rides from strangers, but nothing else was needed.

I agree with marciepooh that the rise of 24-hour news channels with their hype of scare stories is a big factor. In 1980s Miami, people were rational enough to understand that unless you were one or more of (1) drug dealer, (2) Marielito, or (3) in a family where domestic disputes were settled with guns, you were unlikely to be a murder victim, even in the county with the then highest murder rate. The 24-hour news channels need to fill airtime and attract eyeballs; for them, "You don't really need to worry about this" is anathema.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 15 Apr 2008 #permalink

Human beings are generically poor at risk assessment. I read Freakonomics and started doing some research on the real risks - now I'm not particularly worried about my daughter going out in the back yard to play, but everyone looks at me funny when the first question I ask about the friend she wants to go visit is: "Do they have a swimming pool?" (heh)

People back then tended to have a lot more kids. There were four in my family. And it's not that they loved me any less than I love my little girl - it's just that you know when you have four, if something happens to one, you HAVE to go on. When your whole world is ONE critter, you can't imagine what you would do if something untoward happened to her.

We're also a lot more concerned about our children's feelings about themselves and the world. When I was a kid, you'd go outside barefoot. The right time of year, your dad would yell out "You better get some shoes on or you're gonna get stung by a bee or wasp!" And if we DID get stung, he'd tell us, "Well, didn't I tell you you should put shoes on?" and go back to watching the baseball game. Now we make 'em put shoes on, and when they get stung we make over them like they've been seriously injured (I'm guilty, too, yes).

Is it any wonder that our kids are becoming more narcissistic? (… ) - I can't find much on the study's methodology, but many articles about Jean Twenge and narcissism.

I wish kids were allowed to free-range more. Hell, I'm 51 and still regret not free-ranging more during my own childhood. And I fully intend to be a free-range nonagenarian if I live and remain healthy for that long.

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 15 Apr 2008 #permalink

Who needs a nanny state when we've got Ray Kurzweil? By the time FutureBaby is in middle school and is allowed to cross the street alone, s/he will have some kind of implanted GPS tracking device.

Failing that, a cell phone.

There are some cases where you should just not leave your kid alone. Like leaving him alone sleeping in the back seat of your car, which you parked in a fire lane....

Although, the parents didn't have to pay for the towing (since the tow truck driver brought the car back when he realized there was a kid in it), so maybe there is a good reason to leave your kid in the car: free illegal parking!

Got to love the father's comment: "I hate the way towing people run the business." Yes, this was all the towing company's fault. Who would have thought they might tow a car parked in the fire lane?

What we neeeeeed is implanted GPS for kids that inhibit the speed of any nearby vehicle, so that any car approaching or carrying our precious futures will be moving at a stately and safe 10mph.

They ARE going to leave home sometime. Will they be paralyzed by fear, like a chicken out in the open, or oblivious to real danger when they do?

Based on my personal observation of a case close to me, they'll panic and run back home where mom and dad can take care of them and continue to make their way smooth.

Human beings are, in general, bad at being realistic about risk, esp. risk concerning their offspring. Combine that with 24/day news stations and their ever voracious maws and you get a populace which feels increasingly unsafe although violent crime statistics have been declining for years. Who do you suppose that benefits?


Oddly enough today was the first day we allowed our 10yr old truly become a latchkey kid. The weather's gotten better and he's riding his bike home from school (true, only 4 blocks) to a temporarily empty house (my wife can't make it back from teaching her class for at least another 30min). For most of this quarter the school has been bussing him home, with the driver waiting to see that he makes it into the house.

My nervousness about this arrangement didn't come from the child snatcher scenario, but rather the more mundane worry that he's ADHD (and "whatever" various variations on the theme, perhaps low-level Aspergers) and so not always so aware of his surrounding and my worry was about him not looking both ways when crossing roads on his bike. I was glad to hear of the bus was waiting for him to get in the house because if he's forgotten his key and was locked out for an unknown time on a sub-zero Illinois February day it could actually be dangerous.

Of course this is a kid who at age three disappeared in a San Jose mall for 45 min and came back on his own carrying a toy dog which he had, ah, picked up. Never did find the store where it got it from. But by the time he returned, while concerned, we weren't panicked. Should we have been? We had set out to search for him just because we were worried that he might become frightened/anxious, but worried about "snatchers"? That's plane fall from the sky territory.

But jez, as a kid my siblings and I would explore the woods down by the stream and reservoir for hours on end without supervision or cell phone (1970's ... calculators were new fangled contraptions, cells phones were SciFi). Suburbs, not the city, perhaps but really... How many of those condemning her are non-city dwellers who have a distorted image of the relative dangers of one locale over the other?

By Don't Panic (not verified) on 16 Apr 2008 #permalink

I agree with Steve, who thinks it might have something to do with larger families back then. My grandmother was born in NYC in 1904, and she and her 4 siblings had way less supervision than kids today -- but then again, only 2 of them made it to adulthood. 2 died of scarlet fever and 1 of congenital heart problems, but the general point is that death perhaps didn't seem as avoidable back then as it does now -- or disease loomed so large that concerns about accidents and abductions took a back seat.

I'm about the same age as Chad, but I have to say -- just on my one suburban street, teeming with unsupervised kids, off the top of my head I can think of one kid who died in a pool and another high schooler who died in a motorcycle accident. On the other hand, the lone only child, with the only overprotective parents within miles, died of a sudden blood clot when she was 26.

Life is precarious. I think people with fewer kids simply respond to that.