Saturday, October 30, 2010

Accidental parenting

One of my saddest childhood memories involves the death of a fourth-grade friend of mine. My friend, aged nine, had gone for a walk by herself in her neighborhood. Well-taught in the art of crossing the street, she stopped at an intersection to allow a van to go by--but the van's driver kindly waved her across. Unfortunately, the car behind the van didn't see the little girl stepping off of the sidewalk, assumed that the van was having some sort of engine trouble, and pulled around it--hitting my friend and knocking her to the pavement. Though paramedics arrived with all speed, they could not save her.

In the past few years or so, the parenting model dubbed "helicopter parenting" has gone to some extremes--so much so that colleges have had to tell parents of newly-arriving freshmen to go home, already. As often happens, when the pendulum swings too far one way, it corrects; sometimes, it may even over-correct, and go too far in the opposite direction.

It is too early to say whether the parenting philosophy dubbed "free-range parenting" will be an over-correction. Perhaps it won't be. But when I hear parents say that nine years old is plenty old enough for a child to learn to navigate neighborhood streets alone within a few blocks' distance of their homes, I recall my friend's tragic death, and I wonder.

Free-range parenting tends to laugh at the cult of child safety and the fixation some parents seem to have on keeping their children from harm. It's true that some parental nightmares are ill-founded; while parents, for instance, fear stranger abductions, such abductions remain relatively rare (and the fact that one happened in this general area, and that the child's killer has never been found, doesn't change the statistics). Helicopter parents' involvement in their children's lives often goes way beyond basic safety questions, too, and into the realm of micromanagement.

But I have one major problem with free-range parenting, with the notion that kids don't need to learn basic safety rules or hold hands or stay close or walk with a parent or check in when they are out alone or take other age-appropriate safety measures. The problem is this:

The leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of two and twenty-four are accidents.

The majority of those are accidents involving cars; collisions between motor vehicles top the list, but accidents in which children are struck by cars go into the "car accident" category too. Drowning, fires, falls, and accidental poisoning are some of the other major causes of accidental death in young people; and there are an alarming number of other accidents, ranging from children killed when they climb on or pull a large piece of furniture or electronics on top of themselves, to fatal accidents involving bicycles or other wheeled equipment, a lack of proper safety gear including a helmet, and a head injury.

Does all of the above justify full-blown helicopter parenting? No; like all parenting extremes the helicopter parents all too easily go too far. But knowing the facts about children and accidents makes me cringe just a little when I hear parents scoff at the idea that a four- or five-year-old needs to hold an adult's hand in a crowded parking lot, or that a child under age ten ought to be with a parent on Halloween.

And that last is what prompts me to write this, even if I get some flack for it. A study done by the CDC a few years ago revealed that children under age fourteen are four times more likely to be hit by a car on Halloween night than on any other night of the year. The combination of excited kids dashing across streets with safety rules momentarily superseded by the thrill of the candy chase, busy adults driving children to parties or even just to neighborhoods where the houses are conveniently close together, dark skies, and so forth leads each year to a rise in the number of children injured or even killed as they seek Halloween loot. Adults are not immune, either, so accompanying one's child isn't a foolproof way to make sure nobody gets hit by a car--but at least adults aren't in danger of letting the evening's excitement suspend their judgment and cause them to dart between parked cars, cross in the middle of the road, or engage in similar risky behaviors.

Halloween is by far the only time when children are at risk of momentary bad judgment leading to accident, though. That's why, as much as I agree that some of the helicopter parenting has gone too far, I don't think replacing this with a totally hands-off approach is wise, either.

It's true that no parents can protect their children from every possible accident or injury; such things, sadly, often happen in the blink of an eye--and with parents close by. But some of the biggest dangers, from being hit by cars to drowning or being poisoned accidentally, can be addressed proactively and reasonably. Though my childhood friend was following safety rules, for example, the driver of the second car simply couldn't see her--but he would have seen a taller adult at her side.

There's a reason for childhood, for there to be time for a child to learn and grow and discover the adult world--and how to function safely and intelligently and rationally within it. There's a reason for parents, too: not "helicopter" parents or "free-range" parents, but just--parents. There is nothing wrong with believing that one's child is old enough to cross the street safely while still insisting that he wait to do so until he is older, taller, more mature, and less likely to act on impulse. Parenting doesn't fit into an easy little box with neat, tidy labels; it's a messy, confusing business, much of the time. But the rewards are as priceless as our children.


bearing said...

I've never heard anyone characterize "free-range parenting" as "the notion that kids don't need to learn basic safety rules." The article you linked is very careful to note that preparation is a necessary part of allowing children freedom and responsibility. (It's on page 3 of the WebMD article.) There you will see a checklist for determining when a child is ready for a given activity.

I think maybe you are arguing against a straw man.

The number of accidents that kill children every year is irrelevant to it, also, until you tease away the accidents CAUSED by parents. I wonder if we won't find (especially because of the high number of auto collisions) that children of certain age groups aren't statistically safer away from their parents.

Red Cardigan said...

Well, I did link to the WebMD article as a non-biased view, but my negative views of the movement tend to come from the actual "free-range kids" blog, which I didn't link to. A recent discussion there involved people suggesting a woman cut off contact with another family because that family refused to allow her son to walk home alone, which she insisted he be able to do.

My thought was that if I were ever in that situation, I'd only let the child walk home alone if the parents signed a legal document waiving any and all liability if something happened to their child between my home and his. The sad reality is that if a child *is* injured, or, God forbid, killed, the people who permitted him to leave their home unattended are the ones the law will hold accountable.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to raise this issue. I'm inclined to believe as suggested that the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, yet the force of gravity pulls the the majority of the path toward the middle.

When I was little, children disappeared when hoboes came to the back door or a child ran away to be with the gypsies.

Because children 2-16 are relatively healthy (compared to the vast majority of those older than themselves) + often have access to more healthcare benefits than their elders, it's a numbers game that the major cause of death is going to be accidental death.

So, an obligation of society is to raise awareness, and if parents have any question of the appropriateness, err on the side of caution!

Hallowe'en is the only 'holiday' in which masses of children are walking about in the dark, anticipating wonderful hordes of sweets, and the level of excitement and costumes might impair both ordinary precautionary measures as well as impede judgment.

I remember as a child, wolves were said to be settling for the winter, and we as children would not want to be gobbled, a tale sure to cause an alertness that might otherwise be blocked by a mask or thoughts of a candy apple.

Anonymous said...

I think parent's views on what is consider safe or not is particular to where they live and what is considered the "norm" in the area.

I live in a NYC commuter train line town, 11 miles from Manhattan. Our town consists of mostly pre-WW2 houses set on quarter acre plots, sidewalks, neighborhood schools (no busing), real functional down town with 2 train stations. Everybody walks everywhere. My children have been walking the half mile to school unaccompanied by me since the oldest was in 3rd grade (the age in which children can be dismissed from school unaccompanied by a parent). So for us, walking alone is not a problem and I really don't worry about my children being abducted by strangers.

A few years ago we had an internet safety presentation at our school and the police detective told us that most parents worry about the wrong things. They worry that their child will be kidnapped when the real danger lies in stuff that can happen over the internet with child sex offenders. He went on to list some recent incidents in the area where teens inadvertently gave their personal information to adults in chat rooms. He told us to get our kids off the computer and send them outside.

And lastly, the controversy that the "free range parenting blogger" drummed up by allowing her son to ride the subway unaccompanied by her wasn't considered a controversy by native NYers.

At 14 my little brother by himself took a commuter bus to NYC (Port Authority), then hopped on a taxi to the Upper East Side to get to high school every day. He did the reverse trip on the way home. This is common where I live. Not only do city kids get themselves to school, but lots of suburban kids also do the same.

MightyMighty said...

I wouldn't want to be either a helicopter or free-range parent, if only because I think parents are morally obligated to provide the right kind of influence in the right amounts. Too much or too little are obviously both harmful.

As a Catholic, I intend to homeschool our children, but I lean toward an approach where the children direct their own learning, mostly, while I create a home culture where learning Latin or knowing the periodic table is cool.

For safety, I think that swimming lessons are in the same league as traffic safety, not dance lessons. Drowning is a huge cause of death of urban black children because they usually can't swim. Lessons are expensive, pools are scarce, and if mom and dad never learned, it may not seem necessary.

That's a specific example that illustrates a larger point. Parents should teach their children as much as they can about being safe, making smart decisions, and when to ask for help, but allowing children no space to interact with the world independently makes them subject to a different sort of danger.

For the little girl who was killed, chances are the car that pulled around was going way too fast or simply wasn't paying attention. It's possible they would have seen an adult, but a van is taller than many adults, so maybe they both would have been hit.

I remind myself of how quickly kids run into the street whenever I'm driving. It's so easy to speed, and it doesn't seem to matter when "nobody is around." But I'm sure that there are plenty of families who have lost kids to collisions that would have been prevented with a little more training for kids, and adults who drove defensively.

Similarly, we bolted our bookshelves to the wall and would do so if we had flat screen. Parents can't hover over toddlers every minute, which is why it makes sense to baby-proof the stuff that could be fatal, and train kids to not touch stuff that's just annoying. We locked away chemicals and took the handles off the oven, but spent weeks teaching our son to leave the grown-up books on the shelves.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

One unfortunate feature of our culture is the assumption that we can make everything perfectly safe. Some people in every generation are going to be hurt, or even die. We try to make it less likely, but we don't live in a perfect world, whether from a "fallen" perspective or the atheistic view of an indifferent universe. When we had no motor vehicles, people died of heart attacks who now get to hospital in ambulances, but, someone else dies run over by a car.

This post reminds me of many things. It reminds me that I did start taking the bus downtown by myself at age 9 (in a small midwestern city). It reminds me that I walked to school by myself starting the second day of kindergarten.

It reminds me of the time I had picked up a passenger in my bus, and was navigating my way through a crowded pre-Christmas parking lot, when I noticed a driver desperate for a chance to back their car out of a parking space blocked by the endless line of traffic. I stopped to allow him to do so, and a car behind me accelerated around me, blocking him again. Fortunately, nobody was out of a car to be run over, and, I was able to maneuver my bus to leave no room for another car to do that, while still allowing the car to back out.

I am reminded of the time I was walking across an intersection of a busy four-lane arterial surface street with a 30 mph speed limit. A car travelling toward me in the right lane slowed down a little. Another car accelerated around him into the left lane, the lane I was walking into as I proceeded across the street, and beeped at me for being in his way. As an adult, I was no less in danger of being killed, but, fortunately, or by the grace of God, I was not hit.

Selfishness bordering on sollypsism and general hazards of a less predictable or avoidable nature are inevitable. We are never entirely safe. Some parents who drop their kids off at college will get phone calls notifying them that said child is dead. Mercifully, these are few - but the same can happen if the child does not go to college. Staying with the child through four years is not a solution, nor will it always prevent whatever might occur. Sooner or later, the young ones must leave the nest. The sooner they are capable of navigating life for themselves, the better -- but the word "capable" is essential.

L. said...

What a horrible story! A similar thing happened in the SF neighborhood in which we used to live, except the father was with his 6-year old son's hand when it happened. The father was uninjured -- his son died holding his father's hand. Being with a parent reduces the chances of kids' meeting a horrible fate, but can't eliminate it all together.

I am a proud free-range parent (but prefer to call myself a "detachment" parent, heh).

My youngest son walked four blocks to school without me, in an urban area (San Francisco), from the time he was a 5-year old kindergartener, accompanied only by his 12-year old brother and 10-year old sister. There were parents who approved, and let their own kids do the same, and there were others who thought I was criminally negligent.

I say that for us detachment parents, who let our kids go off on their own, "the notion that kids don't need to learn basic safety rules" is quite foreign -- in fact, learning them is crucial.

L. said...

Oh, and I agree with MightyMighty above -- swimming lessons from an early age (either formal lessons, or parental training) are in the same league as traffic safety.

So is "stranger danger," and also what to do when a peer is misbehaving to the point when adult intervention is warranted (such as hurting others or playing with matches).

On the last point, my youngest little "free ranger" is no longer wandering the range, after hanging out with the posse that was playing with cigarette lighters and stealing candy from stores. My now 8-year old is no longer allowed to play at the park without a grown-up. This doesn't mean I am a "helicopter" parent -- it means I recognized the dangers of a particular situation.

Jamie said...

Really? If we lived two blocks apart and I felt confident in my child's ability to get home safely from your house on foot, you'd want me to sign a waiver before you'd allow it?

My four boys walk to school without adult supervision every morning: the 13yo goes about a mile to junior high; the younger three walk about 4 blocks to the grade school. I meet the grade school contingent in the afternoon, mostly so they don't argue when they're all tired -- not because I doubt their ability to get home safely. The school wouldn't bat an eye if I said they'd be coming home on their own from now on; plenty of the neighborhood kids walk by themselves.

One of our priorities when we bought a house in this neighborhood was for our kids to feel comfortable navigating their corner of the world on foot.

Charlotte said...

I didn't read those links or blog, relying instead on the general concept of free-range parenting that you explained. And based on that, I think I'm leaning more towards being a free-range parent, but hopefully being "free-range" in an overtly Catholic atmosphere - which is something entirely different. I'm more worried about soul than body and I hope that doesn't sound too simplistic. Also, being a first-time parent, who knows how things will really turn out to be?

What I despise is the attitude and actions I see from my sibling and other friends I went to high school with who still live in the suburbs - it's helicopter all the way out there. I laugh, since so many of their fears are unfounded in their gated, completely white homogenized villages and towns. To me, helipcopter parent is equivalent to a spolied, entitled child who has no sense of a life/purpose outside of the mall or their overly-secularized school or their sleepover parties with other kids who look and talk just the same. Probably paiting with a broad stroke, but that's how it looks to me. It's for exactly that reason - what I see in the suburbs - that I want my child to be "free-range."

Besides, what people call free-range today is, to me, how anyone Generation X or earlier was brought up anyhow. We roamed the streets and the town on our bikes. We went places and did things without our parents worrying all the time - we just knew we were expected home when we told to be home. Yes, we went trick-or-treating without a parent along at around age 9 or 10, because we were in a big group of kids who ranged in age from 5 to 14 all together - strength and safety in numbers. We didn't wear bike helmets and we lived.

I yearn for and mourn those days.