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In the afternoons, while the baby naps, I like to send my 3-year-old out to play in the backyard. Sometimes I hook up the baby monitor and
join her. Other times, I start dinner. But I keep a wary eye on her, not because I’m afraid of a kidnapping but because I’m afraid of well-intentioned bystanders.
In her book "Free-Range
Kids" Lenore Skenazy cites the odds of a child getting abducted by a
stranger at 1 in 1.5 million. She notes
it is more likely that your child will get struck by lightning. Additionally, I
live in a low-crime area. There have been no stranger abductions in my
neighborhood since I moved in almost 10 years ago. I’ve discussed with my daughter the dangers
of talking with strangers and walking off with them and we know all the
neighbors around us.
I feel comfortable with letting my daughter play in the
backyard, digging in the dirt and building fairy houses out of pine needles. I’ve
even begun letting her ride her bike up the block to the big pine tree and
back. She will be 4 soon and we are exploring safe boundaries and trying to
balance freedom with safety. I had a very
independent childhood, with long summer days spent riding my bike to the pool
and exploring the creek around our house. I want that for my kids, too. But more
importantly, I don’t
want my parenting to be ruled by fear.
But I’m beginning to wonder if instead of advocating for safety, we are mistaking a culture of vigilance for a culture of fear.
But I have found myself becoming more and more afraid, not
of the risks my daughter is facing, but by the judgment of strangers. A few
months ago, while my daughter was outside in the front yard, I left her on the
doorstep while I stepped in to grab her some mittens. When I came back outside,
I saw a woman quickly running toward my house.
She waved at me frantically. “Is this your child?”
“Yes,” I said. I had been inside the house no more than 30
seconds and the door was open the whole time.
“I was worried she had snuck out and I didn’t want her
getting kidnapped or hit by a car!” She yelled.
I grimaced and thanked her and assured her I had an eye on
my kid the whole time. I thought nothing more of the incident until last month a
family was investigated for letting their kids 10 and six walk home from the
park. This isn’t the
first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last. I don’t consider
myself very free-range, but the story struck a nerve, because I live less than
a mile from a park. I too hope my kids are confident enough to go play there by
themselves one day. Not long after this story hit the news, I had another
neighbor stop by to tell me they had seen my daughter in our backyard playing
and wanted to know if that was OK.
I appreciate my neighbors' vigilance. I actually do. And I
appreciate them talking to me in a kind manner before calling the police. As it
turned out, I had been out there with my daughter when the neighbor saw her,
but I was hidden by the shrubs. Regardless, I began to grow afraid. Now, more
than kidnappers and lightning strikes, I’m afraid of my neighbors calling CPS.
Perhaps my fears are overblown. Perhaps I just have kind
neighbors. Perhaps I’m being swayed by media reports of overly judgmental
bystanders and cops that threaten to jail parents for giving their kids a
modicum of freedom. But I’m beginning to
wonder if instead of advocating for safety, we are mistaking a culture of
vigilance for a culture of fear.
I understand the dangers outside my door. I know that it is
far more dangerous for my daughter to get in the car with me and go to the
store than it is for her to take a tumble off the slide at the playground. But
I also know that I have a cautious, careful girl, a girl who
wouldn’t even walk until she was 18 months because she was afraid of falling. I want to instill in her a sense of independence, not fear. Because for
all our society's sanitizing of children play environments, they aren’t
any worse or better than they were before.
I’d rather raise children out of strength than weakness, out of power than fear.
In an article for “The
Atlantic,” Hanna Rosin writes, “According to the National Electronic Injury
Surveillance System, which monitors hospital visits, the frequency of
emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, including home
equipment, in 1980 was 156,000, or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it
was 271,475, or one per 1,156 Americans. The number of deaths hasn’t changed
much either. From 2001 through 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission
reported 100 deaths associated with playground equipment—an average of 13 a
year, or 10 fewer than were reported in 1980. Head injuries, runaway
motorcycles, a fatal fall onto a rock—most of the horrors Sweeney and Frost
described all those years ago turn out to be freakishly rare, unexpected
tragedies that no amount of safety-proofing can prevent.”
A year ago, my dear friend lost her 11 month old son. The
official diagnoses was SIDS, but they really don’t know what made him not wake
up from that nap. In this past year, my friend could have easily drawn her
other two children close to her and tried to insulate them from all the untold
dangers, which took her son. But she hasn’t. Instead, as she told me last
month, “I’ve learned that some things in life are beyond us. I’d rather raise
children out of strength than weakness, out of power than fear.”
Her words stick with me as I let my daughter navigate that
small patch of grass and trees that make up the backyard. I stand by the window
or sit on the back steps, letting her know I’m there, but I find that she
rarely looks up. She knows I’m there for her.
It’s everyone else that has me worried. But perhaps, that
fear in me is a weakness, too.