October 2, 2009

Why Can't Kids Walk Alone To School? Part 1

136 comments on Metafilter about an article on the NYT, and none of them suggest that the problem is that adults are untrustworthy and dangerous.

Via metafilter: a mom, Katie, decides to let her kid walk to school, a move so outrageous that the New York Times is compelled to write an article about it.

" 'She's just so pretty. She's just so ... blond.' A friend said, 'I heard that  Jaycee Dugard story and I thought of your daughter.'  And they say, 'I'd never do that with my kid: I wouldn't trust my kid with the street,' " said Katie, a stay-at-home mother, who asked that her full identity be withheld to protect her children.

Katie, too, is tormented by the abduction monsters embedded in modern parenting. Yet she wants to encourage her daughter's independence. "Somehow, walking to school has become a political act when it's this uncommon," she said. "Somebody has to be first."

Any parent can sympathize: what if?

But what if... what?  Be specific, put some thought into this: are you worried your daughter will cross paths with a Bad Man, or are you worried that your daughter is walking into a world where everyone is an opportunist?


One problem is that we aren't trusting of ourselves as parents. Perhaps the older generations didn't know or care about their shortcomings, but we do, for sure.   Have we really done our jobs?  Did we teach them enough about the complexities of human nature?   It's easy to say "don't talk to strangers," but how do you tell your kid to watch out for his otherwise good teacher?  How do you tell them not to let a cop drive him home?  ("Why would you ever tell him that?"  A: Why would they ever drive him home?) 

It's easier to hover.   Not a judgment, just an observation.

We probably all imagined that when we had kids of our own, we'd teach them how to beat down a bully.  Well?  I know we dreamed about how we'd teach our kids to escape from bad guys.  Did you?  Did you teach them how to manipulate their attacker?  Or did you leave them to the Wii?   "Well there are just too many other important things--"  Oh, you taught him French? Started him on push-ups early?  Game theory?

Kids don't ask to be chaperoned; they don't ask to be forbidden from going "down the creek" and they sure as hell don't ask for bike helmets.  That's all chosen by the parents.  So the question really is, why do parents choose to do this?

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying we are failures as parents; I'm saying we are afraid we are.  We are insecure that we have adequately prepared kids for life.  This insecurity prevents us from letting them experience life.  And thus they are actually unprepared, and thus we were right.


"All this helicopter parenting is going to make kids grow up to be wusses."

Maybe, but it's interesting that most people who say this don't have any kids of their own.  Parents might agree with the sentiment, but they're still going to buy bike helmets.  Geezers may like telling stories of how they had to walk five miles to school in the snow, but I don't know any geezers who would let their grandkids do that today.

Do you see that Katie, quoted above, is hiding her identity "to protect her children?"  The world is much smaller.  Just like it's easy to imagine calling a guy across the country on a whim, it's not so crazy to imagine a guy buying a $100 LAX to NYC plane ticket for the possibility of free 9 year olds.


Question: have we squandered the nanoseconds we do spend with our kids by using it to teach them not to judge people by how they look? 

Xanax yourself, Caps Lock.  We adults do frequently judge people based on how they look, right or wrong.  So on the one hand we think we can identify the Bad Men, on the other hand we are aware that we have not taught our kids to do it.  So we have to do it for them.

Have we crippled kids, in the name of equanimity?  That we don't believe anyway?

Maybe such politically incorrect heuristics are precisely what we should be teaching them, precisely because they have nothing else to go by?  I know that not every 50 year old white man with a mustache is a pedophile.  You know what else I know?  Run.

Heuristics are short cuts that save you from overthinking.  Sometimes you need handy, explicit rules so that thinking, education, logic, experience, and civilization don't make you do the wrong thing.  A joke by Dave Attell: 

If you walk outside and see a naked man running down the street, cock flapping in the wind, you run with that man.  Because there's some scary shit coming the other way.

"But not all bad men look like bad men!"  I know, but maybe at least steel the kid against some identifiable Bad Men?  "But not everyone who looks bad is Bad!"  So maybe the kid misses out on the gentle friendship of a mustached IT guy.  Oh well.  He can have a snow cone instead.


Our insecurity is not unfounded.  We barely spend real time with them at all, we get through the time until they go to bed or college, whichever comes first.  And we're certainly not anticipating the issues they'll face in their future.  What did you tell them about the ethics of killing robot hookers?

  We don't see our kids as total human beings, they are still mostly extensions of ourselves.  Since we're not sure how well we've prepared them, AND we fail to see their unique strengths because they didn't come from us, we just don't know how they'd react.

Will the kid really not be enticed by a guy with some candy/Playboys/pot?  If he tries to grab a six year old and she runs, will she know how to get home?

Or, and I can't believe I'm writing this, if she's 15, will she remember to run? 

We're not confident in how we've trained our kids and so we don't train them, reinforcing our insecurity.  Meanwhile, we don't see that they're growing up anyway.

Kids are the best, Apu. You can teach them to hate the things you hate. And they practically raise themselves, what with the Internet and all.
Good point.  We'd better monitor their internet use, then.

Part 2 here.


Thanks for this. I'm lookin... (Below threshold)

October 2, 2009 1:42 AM | Posted by Jim: | Reply

Thanks for this. I'm looking forward to part ii.

Another narcissism angle: are we over-protective out of fear of being seen as a poor parent? Perhaps my kids don't walk to school because I'm more afraid of what other parents will think of me than of the actual risk to the children.

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How old is fifteen, real... (Below threshold)

October 2, 2009 4:02 AM | Posted by Narcissus: | Reply

How old is fifteen, really?

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I'm glad I'm not the only ... (Below threshold)

October 2, 2009 4:50 AM | Posted by spriteless: | Reply

I'm glad I'm not the only one with angry insomnia, and damn, you got what I say and my not having kids all at once. I hope there are some inattentive narcissist with grown up kids for the coddled grown up kids to find and compare notes on. If not, at least some people seem to figure out how to grow up without any help. And there's always the opportunity read that "Shinji and Warhammer 40K" fanfiction instead of Twilight. And according to mercantilism I've just turned you into a market for fanfiction. Yay!

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The robot hookers remark is... (Below threshold)

October 2, 2009 10:18 AM | Posted by ITguy: | Reply

The robot hookers remark is great. Must your example be an IT guy? We're not all lonely MMORPG players...

While I'm still a kid myself, (early twenties), and certainly not a parent, I have a hard time believing that there are more opportunities for predators, (white males), nowadays, than there had been. While the internet does make it easier to contact and locate people, it's equally easy to be caught in this way. Also, hasn't anyone read Marquis de Sade? It's not as if this opportunism, or perversion, is a new societal problem. In short, human nature hasn't changed drastically, so why should anyone be more or less worried about imminent dangers? Anxious parents tend to create anxious children, and I've yet to see when anxiety is useful in a perilous situation.

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Ah, I was just kidding. ... (Below threshold)

October 2, 2009 10:46 AM | Posted, in reply to ITguy's comment, by Alone: | Reply

Ah, I was just kidding. The issue isn't so much the availability of victims, but whether the adults now are more dangerous than before. And if so, why? If not, what are we afraid of?-- the answer can't be "nothing" because the fear, at least, is real.

Why do people fear the dark? It's not the "unknown" because people's fears about the dark are very specific (e.g. The Ring.)

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Most entertaining and poign... (Below threshold)

October 2, 2009 4:57 PM | Posted by AwesomeSauce: | Reply

Most entertaining and poignant article in awhile. Thank you.

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Thank you so much.... (Below threshold)

October 3, 2009 7:15 AM | Posted by John: | Reply

Thank you so much.

A pointless little story about myself: I'm 21 years old and trying to figure out who the hell I am and where I fit into the world. A couple of years ago I went to see a therapist. It all ground to a halt when, about three sessions in, he asked me to describe my parents. I just couldn't, there was just this blank space in my head. I could describe a table lamp or a painting or a piece of music but I couldn't describe my parents. This therapist really pressed the issue and I abandoned the whole process, feeling like I was being obstructive or like I just wasn't suitable for therapy or something.

It was only when I stumbled upon your blog earlier this year that I started to realise *why* I couldn't describe my parents. They were so involved and emotionally available as parents that they left less of a lasting impression on me than Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario did.

Your writing has helped me understand why I and so many of my peers feel so angry, so useless, so utterly cheated.

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I don't think that kids are... (Below threshold)

October 5, 2009 8:23 AM | Posted, in reply to ITguy's comment, by Roger: | Reply

I don't think that kids are in any more danger today that 30 or 60 years ago, but I do think that the modern media greatly increases awareness of the bad things that do happen. For better or worse, we now live in a world of multiple channels of 24/7 news coverage, and they need something to fill the time.

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Anxious parents tend to ... (Below threshold)

October 5, 2009 2:42 PM | Posted, in reply to ITguy's comment, by xon: | Reply

Anxious parents tend to create anxious children, and I've yet to see when anxiety is useful in a perilous situation.


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<a href="http://www.newswee... (Below threshold)

October 6, 2009 4:01 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply


From the article:
"Scott's parents didn't think they needed to warn him about new risks he might encounter."

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I'm a divorce lawyer. I'm ... (Below threshold)

October 6, 2009 4:04 PM | Posted by BHL: | Reply

I'm a divorce lawyer. I'm seeing more and more of the parenthood cultists divorcing from less anxious parents, and the parenting agreements that result are, quite frankly, ridiculous (lucrative for me, but re-dic-u-lous.)

I'm talking about micro-managing the colour of the sheets on the beds, and what percent of each food group to include in each meal and who can take the kid to get his hair cut.

There's definitely something wrong here.

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Children are safer now then... (Below threshold)

October 6, 2009 9:49 PM | Posted by Carol: | Reply

Children are safer now then they were. In part because like the young man above more emotionally involved with Sonic than his parents, they are sitting inside, being entertained rather than making their own entertainment.

I'd also like to suggest that not knowing anything about your parents says more about you than your parents. In general, people seem to like the people they love to be involved with them and emotionally available. (Which is a description of your parents, BTW.)

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I bought a bike helmet beca... (Below threshold)

October 6, 2009 10:42 PM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

I bought a bike helmet because it's the law. I'm afraid to let my son ride on the sidewalk in front of our house without it because I'm afraid the neighbors will call social services. It makes me really angry and I have told my son it's bullshit. I used a different word.

You are missing the whole point here. There is a scary out of control bureaucracy that can ruin your life if you come to its attention. People aren't really afraid of random abductors; they're afraid of the state, but what the state can do to you and your children is so terrifying that people deflect that fear onto stranger danger.

For example:


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I am fearful that my kids w... (Below threshold)

October 20, 2009 7:23 PM | Posted by Danielle: | Reply

I am fearful that my kids will be snatched away when I am not looking. I lost a child before and just dont think I could mentally sustain losing another one. I am paranoid I know and I myself have experienced some life lessons and I instill them in my children that people can turn on you any time so trust noone except your Momma! Am I wrong? I protect my kids to the fullest and watch their every moe or at least try to. My oldest is 15 and doesnt care if shes out past dark and says no more me if I get snatched and I dont know where that carelessness is coming from.. Did I make her that way? I totally agree with the State thing, if you make somebody mad they can report you as an unfit parent-b.s. Sad but true and I have a cousin going through it as we speak because her now boyfriends ex girlfrend was jealous that they had a kid and she didnt have his kid. They are on the verge of losing her son because of a lie. She is mentally ill but never did drugs or abused her son. But, the State said she was unfit and took her kid. In the meantime, I have a neighbor that does drugs recreationally everyday and has 5 kids 4 different dads and has had the State called on her several times and no drug test has been given to her and she still has her kids. It never ends. Please let me know what you think.

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You definitely can so belie... (Below threshold)

February 20, 2010 12:25 AM | Posted by dontbecoy: | Reply

You definitely can so believe you are writing that.

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