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KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf
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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Unaccompanied Kids

One of the e-mail lists I subscribe to has been discussing letting children play at parks by themselves. One woman wrote:
... but do you think there are really, objectively, so many more dangers awaiting unattended kids than there were when we were little? (I'm 41 and roamed around by myself plenty at age 8 or 9.)
I replied:
I'm 48. I don't think it's just that there are so many more dangers now; I think people used to be a lot more naive than they are now. Plus, people don't look out for one another and one another's kids the way they used to; there's more alienation and insularity now than in the past.

I live in a pretty safe suburban neighborhood. I've been letting my 12-year-old ride his bike, unsupervised, around the neighborhood for a couple of years now, but he must carry a cell phone with him. It's made specifically for children and can call only four numbers that my husband or I program in—our home phone, my cell, husband's cell, grandparents' home phone—in addition to 911. No way would I allow him to bike to nearby parks alone, even if they weren't on busy town roads. There are several registered sex offenders living in our area; we get the notices in the mail whenever one of them moves here. And we don't know absolutely everyone on even our own street.

My 5-year-old (almost 6 now) doesn't go anywhere in the neighborhood without being accompanied by me, my husband, or his big brother. When he will be allowed to depends on when my husband and I believe that his judgment and common sense have reached an appropriate level.
What do you think? Do you let your children play outdoors without supervision? Either way, what are your children's ages?



9 comments:

LeftLeaningLady said...

My son was lucky. We moved onto a military installation when he was 7. I let him play in the local area until one day when I left for work (his dad was there) and I couldn't find him. Then he was allowed to play in our yard with friends until he was older. We moved off base when he was 11. He was allowed to walk the dog only on our street where I could see him. It is tough to walk the fine line between safety and paranoia.

MJ said...

Katharine,

Do you know what the two registered sex offenders were arrested for? If not, I'm not sure I'd necessarily take that as a real threat. Depending on where you live, a sex crime can be something that you don't realistically have to worry about affecting your child.

I recently read a story about a woman in Tulsa who was a registered sex offender. Her "sex crime" was flashing a police officer when she was drunk, in her 20s. Since registered sex offenders can't live within a certain distance of schools, parks, and churches (all of which are plentiful in Tulsa), the only places she could find to live and raise her teenage daughter were scary places full of ACTUAL sex offenders.

I suspect that a lot of sex crimes charges depend on who's doing the arresting and who's being arrested. How many gay couples do you suppose get hauled off to jail on "lewd and lascivious behavior" charges, and thus are forever branded as sex offenders, when a heterosexual couple doing exactly the same thing would get a knowing wink and a "Move along, kids" from the cops?

I wish the "registered sex offender" designation was actually protective, but I just don't think it is yet. I think relying too much on it can make you feel falsely secure and yet more fearful at the same time. My personal feeling is that the ones you really have to worry about probably haven't been caught yet anyway. What do you do when the danger isn't coming from the registered sex offender down the street who got caught with a hooker when he was 21, but from the scoutmaster or youth minister you've trusted for years?

Well, this is already too long, but since my son isn't quite two I have a while to figure out when and where he gets to play by himself. I'm 40, and I think my parents were more confident of my maturity than perhaps was good for me—I remember playing alone in the yard, by the creek, when I was in preschool, and I was a "latchkey kid" by the time I was 10. But I think there must be a middle ground between that and walking him to the bus stop until he's in high school, as some of my neighbors do. Seriously.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

No, MJ, I don't know the registered sex offenders' particular crimes, as the law doesn't allow that information to be provided. But in New York State, it does assign levels (1, 2, and 3) to particular offenses. And yes, sex offenders are most often people we know, so I periodically have body-safety talks with my boys, as I did with my daughter when she was a child.

Yes, it is definitely a matter of finding a middle ground. I stopped walking my oldest son to his bus stop when he turned 10, because his maturity level seemed right. Those neighbors of yours, though, truly need to get a grip!

Dick Margulis said...

You're not going to be happy with my comment, but I'll make it anyway and hope that you'll still respect me in the morning.

We've kept statistics on stranger abductions of children since the early part of the twentieth century (1903 if memory serves). The total number of cases reported has held steady at right around 300 a year, while the US population has gone from 75 million to 300 million. So the incidence has actually dropped to twenty-five percent of what it was a hundred years ago.

It's a low-probability event, despite the sensational treatment mass media give it.

I think kids have to learn the rules (don't accept candy or a puppy from a stranger; don't approach a stranger's car; don't believe a stranger who says your mom sent him to get you; etc.) and be tested on them before they're trusted to be out on their own. And the age at which that's appropriate varies from child to child and from neighborhood to neighborhood. But I do not think there's a dangerous creep lurking around every corner or that there's a high risk of an individual kid being victimized. It's the ordinary dangers (rough play, inattention to traffic, getting whacked in the chest with a baseball, falling off a bike, not wearing a seatbelt) that is much more likely to put a kid in the hospital.

karoli said...

Unfortunately the 'registered sex offender' status has been so badly diluted that it's impossible to know if the person reported has been classified that way for a Genarlow Wilson offense, a violent sex offense, or for downloading images later discovered to be of underage girls. The classification has been completely abused and no longer carries a clear meaning.

With that aside, I spent my childhood from about age 7 on running freely around the neighborhood I lived in, playing at the school across the street, and riding my bike just about anywhere I wanted to. My parents did teach me the standard rules -- don't talk to strangers, don't get in a stranger's car, etc. etc.

That doesn't change the fact that when I was 14 I was confronted a block away from my home by a man with a knife promising me $$$$ if I'd just get in the car with him, and threatening me with it when I refused. I screamed loud and long, put my oboe case and books between me and him, screamed some more and he got in the car and left.

Honestly, I don't feel empowered by that encounter to this day. Just relieved, a little bit lucky, and slimed all at the same time. To make matters worse, because I was walking home by myself (a definite rule breaker) and because my father in particular liked to punish with the back of his hand, I didn't tell anyone but one friend about it for years afterward.

Armed with that knowledge, my daughter got a cell phone at age 10, when we were traveling to dance competitions and it wasn't unusual to have to be separated (even in large rooms full of people). Sticks was a little bit different, in that he was the type who was most likely to be where we were anyway, so he didn't get one until he was a freshman in high school. But DG has one, she knows how to use it, and she walks with it in her hand whenever she walks anywhere.

We tend toward the overprotective, I suppose, but given my own experience it's worth it to me to pay the extra $10 for the knowledge that if she ever needs 911 in a hurry, she's got a way to do it. If we're separated at one of these events, it's pretty easy to find her again.

Neither one of them went anywhere alone (or so I thought) when they were 5. The one time DG did, she was hit by a car right in front of our house. That's a story you can find on the blog...it's not one I want to retell. :(

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

No worries, Dick; I'll always respect you.

Yep, I know that long-term abduction has a low probability.

Sexual molestation, however, does not. Some sources estimate that in the United States, 1 of every 5 to 7 men and 1 of every 3 to 5 women are sexually assaulted before their eighteenth birthday, usually by a family member or acquaintance. Actual statistics are difficult to verify and are believed to be grossly underreported.

And yes, I worry about ordinary dangers with my oldest son. His attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder often makes him too impatient to pay attention to such details as always watching traffic carefully when he's biking.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

I hear you, Karoli.

Willie Hughes said...

I've lived in a variety of places. Growing up in Tokyo, Japan, I walked alone to and from school (about a quarter mile, maybe a bit more, including a stretch on a busy four-lane road) from the time I was in the second grade (age 7 or 8). Classmates of mine would make far longer solo commutes than mine that involved taking a series of public buses and/or trains halfway across the city (or in some cases into the city from some suburban area). I never heard of anybody having any problems, except perhaps for a tired kid falling asleep on a train and winding up several miles away from home and having to double back. We all felt perfectly safe and I see no problem with it.

Having said that, what worked well in Tokyo in 1987 does not necessarily work in Los Angeles or even Great Falls in 2007. I wasn't a dad yet when I lived in L.A. and taught in Compton, but if I had been, I'm not sure I'd let my kids out of my sight on those streets or parks when they were 17. ;-)

Where we live in Great Falls, we're in an apartment building that's directly across the street from a fairly large park. The street is a quiet, low-traffic residential street that doesn't even have a yellow line down the middle. I have no problem letting the older kids (8 and 9) go by themselves or with a group of other neighborhood kids to the park. The 5-year-old, though, we don't let leave the house unless one of us goes with him. (Ditto for the 2-year-old, but I hope that would go without saying.)

Imperatrix said...

My girls are 13 and 11. We live in a city, and the sexual offender website shows there are some with addresses near us. In IA, they *do* note what their prey typically is, and it seems that they have been arrested for inappropriate activities towards adult women.

However, I do let my girls play outside, walk to their friends' house (7 city blocks away), walk to the video store (6 cbs away), walk to the Walgreens (1 cb away), and bike to the larger mini grocery store (15 cb away). They never go anywhere without asking permission first. They flew to the east coast alone when they were 7 and 5. They had to make a connection in Milwaukee. In a couple of weeks, they will take a 2-hr bus ride to visit their aunt (this is in NH now). (My first parent-free flight, it was me, 5yo, and my sister 3yo, so my girls' lives seem pretty tame to me!)

I don't think I would ever want my child to think of a cell phone as useful in an escape from an adult. You can't run and hold a phone, or bike and hold a phone, as quickly as if you were just running and screaming at the top of your lungs.

I know too many parents who are raising their kids scared shitless. I don't think that does anyone any good. Teaching kids how to stay away from strangers, how to stay alert without freaking out, and how to ask for help without putting themselves in danger are very important lessons to impart.

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