Perhaps the most difficult lesson parents learn is that we cannot always protect our children from the inevitability of hardship and harm. Oh, but how we try!
Such efforts ring particularly true in this era of helicopter parenting, when efforts to shield kids from failure and disappointment border on the comical. Even as violent crime rates are at the lowest levels in decades and the possibility of a predator lurking in the bushes is remote, fear has become the make-believe friend of many a 9-year-old.
The latest volley in the long-standing debate over the amount of supervision children need was fired right here in Florida just a few days ago. Nicole Gainey, a Port St. Lucie mother, let her 7-year-old son walk alone to a park about half a mile from his home. He carried a cellphone and, I venture to write, a bit of spunk. En route he stopped at a nearby pool, and one of the lifeguards, who had seen the boy a few other times, approached to ask him questions, including where his mother was. Spooked, the boy ran across a six-lane road toward the park.
A police officer, who found him there, asked whether he was allowed to be out alone. According to an Associated Press story that quotes a police report, Dominic replied, “Yes. She gives me the phone and tells me to go.”
Gainey, who told the cops that she allowed her son to play in the park unsupervised once or twice a week, was promptly arrested and charged with child neglect. She was released the same day after posting a $3,750 bond. With the help of a Virginia-based civil-rights group, she will fight the felony charge, but in the meantime, she has said she will not allow her son to leave the house unattended because she’s afraid to be arrested again.
Gainey joins a growing number of caretakers who have become the poster parent of the “Free Range Kids” crusade, a grassroots movement that targets a helicopter culture that has crossed the line.
A South Carolina mother was also charged with felony child neglect in June when she let her 9-year-old daughter play in a neighborhood park where many unattended children already played. She temporarily lost custody, spent almost three weeks in jail and still faces 10 years in prison if convicted.
Last year an Ohio father was investigated by state child protective services after his 6-year-old daughter was allowed to walk a few blocks to the post office by herself.
And in 2009, columnist Lenore Skenazy sparked a firestorm when she wrote about allowing her then-9-year-old son to ride the New York subway home by himself, armed with a MetroCard, a map, quarters for the phone and $20 for emergencies. After being thoroughly eviscerated in the media and by other moms, she launched a blog ( www.freerangekids.com) and, eventually, a movement.
As a mother of five and now a seasoned grandmother as well, I would not have allowed one of my 7-year-olds to play alone in the park. But — and this is a sizable although and however — I most likely would have made a different decision if my child had been a couple of years older, if he had a cellphone, if we had lived in a small town, if the maturity level and experience of the given child had passed muster. Not all my children would’ve gotten a pass, either.
Like so many toss-up decisions we make about raising our children, it depends. On the parent. On the child. On the situation. On what allows us peace of mind.