MEMBERS ONLY: Overcoming the Fear of Children Being Children

When I was a kid in the 70s, I was outside riding my big wheels when a dog got annoyed by the sound of the plastic wheel grinding against the concrete and took a bite out of my leg. Since I was by myself, I limped into my apartment building, crying hysterically cause it freaking hurt, took the elevator up to my floor and limped down the hall to my apartment to let my mother know a dog had bitten me. I left a trail of blood the entire way.

I was 5, maybe 6 years old. No one accused my mother of neglect.

Another time, I was at the beach playing by myself. It was a crowded day at (almost certainly) Jones Beach. I stepped on something in the water (probably glass) and I could tell I was bleeding a lot. But the cut was so deep and sharp that I didn’t feel it. I was old enough to know not to look because I would panic but young enough to stop at random blankets and ask if anyone had a band-aid as I left a trail of blood on my way back to my blanket. My father saw the how much blood I was gushing, scooped me up and ran me off to the hospital. I needed a whole lot of stitches because the entire ball of my foot was hanging by a flap of skin.

I was, at most, 7 years old. No one accused my father of neglect.

I was accident prone as a kid and there were other times I left a trail of blood on my way home. No one ever accused my parents of neglect. I was a kid playing outside and shit happens. I even broke my leg jumping off of a shed and it never once occurred to anyone to blame my parents for not keeping a closer eye on me.

It’s not like that anymore.

We now live in a country where it is seen as abnormal, or even criminal, to allow children to be away from direct adult supervision, even for a second.

We read, in the news or on social media, about children who have been kidnapped, raped and killed, about children forgotten for hours in broiling cars. We do not think about the statistical probabilities or compare the likelihood of such events with far more present dangers, like increasing rates of childhood diabetes or depression. Statistically speaking, according to the writer Warwick Cairns, you would have to leave a child alone in a public place for 750,000 years before he would be snatched by a stranger. Statistically speaking, a child is far more likely to be killed in a car on the way to a store than waiting in one that is parked. But we have decided such reasoning is beside the point. We have decided to do whatever we have to do to feel safe from such horrors, no matter how rare they might be.

And so now children do not walk to school or play in a park on their own. They do not wait in cars. They do not take long walks through the woods or ride bikes along paths or build secret forts while we are inside working or cooking or leading our lives.

That’s from the article “Motherhood in the Age of Fear” by Kim Brooks in the New York Times. She talks about how she was almost arrested for leaving her kid in the car with the window open on a cool day for a few minutes while she ran an errand. Part of the article is about how we obsess over the possible risks to children not being under constant adult supervision and the rest is about how women bear the brunt of this, men being spared the judgment of society.

That may be why, when Anastasia was 6 and asked to go outside and play with other kids, my wife Debbie almost had a panic attack when I let her go alone. She thought I was absolutely insane, that it was too dangerous. I reminded her that we were going out by ourselves at a much younger age and we had moved to our part of Alexandria specifically because it was a nice and safe neighborhood. She didn’t want to let Anastasia go but this was one of the few times I unilaterally overrode her. Anastasia went outside to play with a set of ground rules:

  • Do not leave the immediate area of the building
  • Do not go down to the trail behind the building
  • Do not go to the playground on the other side of the apartment complex
  • Do not go inside someone’s apartment without letting us know which one
  • If the older kids (meaning two years older) start doing something that makes you uncomfortable, walk away

Debbie spent the next 90 minutes pacing the house, absolutely terrified. What I didn’t let her see was that I was just as freaked out. There were two reasons for that. The first is that Debbie tends to spiral if I’m not calm and vice versa. When something affects us both, we take turns freaking out so one of us stays levelheaded. The second was because I knew I was freaking out over nothing.

This is one of those things that I know, for a fact, is total bullshit. As Brooks points out above, children being snatched by strangers hardly ever happens. The reality is that they’re far more likely to be hurt by someone they know. And I knew that at the time. I knew it. But decades of screaming headlines and frantic news reports about the “epidemic” of kidnappings and the horrors of “stranger danger” had conditioned me to feel deep anxiety over something I knew wasn’t real.

I had been conditioned to fear something that didn’t exist and I resented the shit out of it. For me, being allowed the freedom to play outside without an adult watching me was vital to building my self-identity and independence. My parents trusted me enough to allow me to go over other people’s homes, knowing that I wouldn’t bring shame to them and that made me want to live up to that trust. I didn’t understand it in those terms, of course (I was five, give me a break!) but it’s clear as day from my vantage point as an adult and a parent. Children need time to play away from prying adult eyes and I would be damned if I was going to deprive Anastasia of that because of an artificial terror inflicted on me by ratings-hungry assholes at a network.

These days, Anastasia regularly leaves the apartment by herself to go play with other kids. She’ll walk down the hall and go into another family’s apartment and stay there for hours. Debbie no longer paces the floor and Anastasia is learning how to deal with conflict without being able to turn to mommy or daddy for support. She’ll play in front of the building or behind it or move back inside to a friend’s apartment and we won’t know where she is every second of the day. And that’s OK. We don’t have to.

Even Jordan, as he gets older, is getting a bit more freedom. Up until recently, his autism has meant that we couldn’t leave him alone in public for an instant lest he wander off and disappear. He’s a big kid but it’s amazing how fast he can vanish without even trying. But he’s getting to the point where I can trust him to stay in the car watching his tablet for a few minutes while I run into the apartment and get something. He can play in the pool by himself (while one of us sits poolside) or stay alone in the apartment for a bit while I’m next door talking to Claudia. I don’t have to panic if I lose sight of him on the playground or in the supermarket. Two years ago that would have been unthinkable.

The circumstances are completely different, of course. I don’t worry that someone is going to run off with Jordan, I worry that he’s going to get lost and not know how to ask for help. Autism sucks like that. I’d feel better if he’d wear a bracelet or a necklace that identifies him but he won’t. Still, he’s making progress and enjoying a little bit more freedom.

This is not to say I’m ready for free range parenting and I won’t be letting Anastasia walk to school on her own anytime soon. The street leading up to the school is a main thoroughfare and people drive much faster than they should in a residential area as they rush to work. No thank you. That being said, I’m happy Anastasia can leave the apartment without me having to arrange playdates. Structured playtime is nice but children should be able to find their friends and initiate play on their own without having their parents set it up for them. Taking that away deprives them of a critical social skill.

Anastasia will never know the freedom of running across garage rooftops at night playing Manhunt against the kids from the next block over or walking one and a half miles to the local mall on a Saturday when she’s only 10 years old to spend a day in the arcade with no adult supervision but she has more freedom than most kids have these days and that’s important to us.