On ‘free-range’ parenting and government outta line

Climbing-TreesA tree in the woods of Pennsylvania has my name on it. Mine and that of my childhood best friend, since we were 10. On Saturdays, with our schedules wide open, we organized our own activities, blissfully unsupervised, often ending up perched in this tree with its unusual horseback curve and naturally private setting, exchanging secrets and letting our imaginations run wild.

Its GPS coordinates are roughly 40.095735, -75.487208. Can’t be exact, because that area on Google Maps appears a dead zone, completely off the grid. I never could have imagined, as a youngster in the days of the Cold War, that I’d be able to closely pinpoint my “thinking spot” on the globe four decades later with the accuracy of a Soviet spy. Then again, so much about childhood and the world has changed since I was a kid.

I must weigh in on this flap in the news lately, about the Silver Spring, Md., parents who allowed their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to walk home together from a neighborhood park a mile away, unsupervised, except by each other. A “concerned neighbor” called police and the children were picked up halfway home; the parents are now facing an investigation of neglect, courtesy of the child-services branch of government. I’m not a Libertarian nor anti-government, but this, my friends, is ridiculous. And quite sad.

All I can say, and continue to say, given today’s amped-up digital mill, is thank goodness I’m not raising kids in this era of hyper-suspicion, hyper-vigilance, hyper-paranoia and hyper-busybodiness. When my daughters were young in the early ’90s, it was with a mix of reservations and frustration that I begged them to go outside and play, on their own, just to afford Mommy a modicum of Me Time. We Baby Boomers were on the cutting edge of helicopter parenting, no question, and I was all in with that, glued to them, ever chaperoning, always nosing into their business. On the other hand, I celebrated the way I had been raised and tried to emulate it — my parents gave us ample elbow room, room to get into scrapes and carry the scars on our knees and, sure, on our psyches. I don’t regret a single one. Today I’m still fiercely independent. And I was relieved to learn, later in life, that my girls also had a private “thinking spot” in the glade, where they would escape for unmonitored solitude.

My mother has often told us the story of how her father forced her, at about age 12, to take her four younger brothers, the youngest around 4, onto the D.C. streetcar — just the five of them alone —and ride it to the end of the line and back. Don’t get off, he said, and he’d be there waiting for them at the end of the terror-filled (for my mom) trip. There were no cellphones then, no GPS for the common folk. It’s a defining memory for her, how she took responsibility for her brothers and kept them safe. Like pushing the baby bird from the nest to force it to fly, this is a standard parental ritual and obligation. Separation anxiety is a fact of life. Get over it.

kids-on-the-paris-subwayOne of my own most harrowing days as a parent also involved public transit, on the D.C. Metro system. It had been a long day doing museums or the zoo and we were heading home. My eldest, about 9, was still bursting with energy, gung-ho to board the last train, and she scampered down the escalator to get on. Her baby sister was poking along, so I hung back, near the bottom of the escalator, debating whether to pick the little one up or keep egging her on. Miki had just crossed the threshold of the train car when I heard “Doors closing.” I jet-fueled toward her with Cassy in my arms, but the doors, with their soul-sucking squinch, cut us off. Before the train started moving, I was literally nose-to-nose with my daughter through the thick plastic, mouthing the only thing I could think of “Go to Metro Center! WAIT FOR US THERE!” because I knew that’s where the Metro headquarters was, and I could have the staff at our station radio them to find my daughter and keep her safe. (I shoulda added: “I love you.”)

I was panic-stricken, to say the least. Losing a child in a crowd, in the city, has got to be the worst. I wondered whether any of her fellow passengers had seen what had happened and might step in and be a hero, calm my child, take the lead in helping us reunite. Cellphones weren’t common then, and we had no lifelines or even an emergency plan in place. While Cassy and I waited for the next train, off-peak and taking forever, I ran and told the man in the booth what had happened. He called over to the Metro Center folks to be on the lookout for her. In the meantime (and it was MEAN, time was, indeed), all I could do was assure my little one that her beloved sister was not gone forever, while secretly trying to convince myself.

Metro Center was two stops away, and I suddenly got a little worried Miki wouldn’t know the difference. After we boarded our slow-as-molasses train, I made sure to jump off at the station in between — while clutching my youngest in my arms — just to scan the platform, on the off-chance she was there instead. The entire platform, both ways, empty. Good. That was an unpopular stop, and I didn’t want her there. The density of population at Metro Center seemed somehow safer — it might prove more comforting to my extremely social and brave child, and she could at least find help if I couldn’t get to her first.

Once at Metro Center, there was no sign of Miki. I sprinted to the main office, breathlessly repeating our harrowing predicament. Before I could get through it, though, the woman stopped me, nodding; they had been waiting for me. But Miki was not here! She HAD gotten off at that other station, and was waiting in the booth with that guard. She knew enough not to stand on the platform but to find the guard and explain her story — and this became HER story in years to come, not mine, not a story of parental neglect or failure, but her own story of courage and independence and smart thinking.

Miki, right, with sister Cassy on the "L" in Chicago, modern-day.

Miki, right, with sister Cassy on the “L” in Chicago, modern-day.

Lucky for me, Miki was born with an internal GPS and street smarts. She always knew, even as a toddler during those hours of long commuting from home to day care to endless activities, where she was. She’s grounded with an uncanny homing device built right in. To this day, she keeps a “fix” on home, no matter how far away her travels may take her. I often wonder how much that day alone on the train shaped her sense of independence.

She’s now a big-city girl, living in Chicago. Her sister also lives there; neither one drives, both rely exclusively on public transit, with their jobs sometimes requiring that they stand on the “L” platform at 4 in the morning. Sure, I panic about that and suffer occasional parental nightmares. But I know there’s no sense in living in fear or worrying over what might happen, because we have no power over “mights.” (Or mites, for that matter.) Our worst nightmares can come true whether walking, riding in a car, on a plane, on a train or sitting in a meeting at work. We can be hit by a bus sitting in our own living rooms, as it barrels through the walls, true story.

I guess I’m lamenting the bygone days when kids roamed free and parents could relax. And I’m suggesting: Tamp down the fear, a tad, society. Give your children some space, encourage them to break free of confining screens and electronics, and explore ways to safely push them from the nest. Heck, we can even outfit our kids with GPS trackers, if they’re too young for phones, and keep tabs on them that way. Let’s use technology to our advantage — we should feel more peace of mind these days with such tools, not less — and let’s not over-schedule our children in “safe,” supervised activities or keep them trapped inside all day playing video games exercising only their eyeballs. And, please, give your neighbors some leeway on knowing how best to raise their children.

It’s OK to be concerned if you see youngsters walking alone, unsupervised. But don’t jump to conclusions or execute rash judgment. Keep your own eyes on them. Wouldn’t it have been better, rather than call police, for that worried person to have monitored them as well as possible, from a distance, and then know that the next neighbor would do the same … the whole village, down the line, on the lookout for our kids? But that, of course, might require we actually get to know our neighbors.

If those children had met the Big Bad Wolf along the way — one can only hope there would have been time and opportunity then to intervene. Tragedies do happen, and that’s the awful way of the world. But the bad news truly is the exception; that’s why it’s news. If more of us were simply looking out for each other, maybe we fellow shepherds and herdsmen could chase away the wolves and allow a mob rule of vigilance, not vigilantism, to rule the day.