I often hear people reminiscing wistfully about childhood adventures. They usually involve risk and independence and freedom. “I remember when I was 8 and my mom put me on the bus to go visit my grandma.” “I remember when I was 7 and I camped in my friend’s backyard without our parents and we stayed up all night telling ghost stories.” “I remember how every day of the summer we left in the morning and came in for lunch and went outside again until dinner and then went outside until our moms said we had to come in for bed.” And then, invariably, they say, “Of course, things were different then.” And I want to say, “Were they? Were they really different then?” (Sometimes I do say it, but it usually ends with the other person being offended, so I’m trying to keep my mouth shut and not challenge people so much.)
I don’t want to minimize the pain and suffering of people whose children have been abducted by strangers. It is a horrible, horrible thing. But the fact is that stranger abduction is extremely rare. And I don’t think it happens anymore frequently now than it did when we were kids. I just think we hear about every horrible, sad, scary stranger abduction now, and each incident wasn’t plastered all over the media when we were kids.
I just don’t believe that there are people hiding behind trees waiting to snatch my child away. And I feel sorry for the kids whose moms see the world that way. I just don’t think the world is more dangerous now than it used to be, at least in terms of stranger danger. There are two potential implications of this, of course: 1) Our parents were out of their minds to let us have so much freedom, because they didn’t understand how dangerous the world was; or 2) We are doing our children a disservice by not allowing them more freedom. I understand the position of people who believe the former, but I believe the latter.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t let my children (5 and 3) play outside unsupervised. Much. (Except when they open the door and go outside when I’m in the kitchen. Even though I’ve told them a million times not to do that.) But it’s not because I’m afraid they’re going to be snatched away. It’s because Margaret will snatch other children’s toys away. And because they’re still forgetful and run into the street. (Which they do anyway when I look away for a split second.)
But when they are a bit older, I will let them play outside unsupervised. And walk to school without me. (I don’t know at what age, but I’ll know it when I see it.) I don’t want them to see the world as a scary place. I want them to explore the world. And find things to do. And negotiate disagreements with other people without an adult to intervene. And once they turn 13, I’ll let David and Margaret ride the el without me, as I did with Emma. (David will probably be clinging to my leg begging me not to make him go on the el by himself.)
Until they scrape a knee. Then they’re back to 24/7 supervision.