When I was 6 years old, my mother put me on a TARC bus and sent me to school at Franklin Elementary. Let me repeat that: When I was 6, my mother gave me bus fare and sent me to school on the TARC. Alone. I did this every school day, and then rode the bus from school to my grandmother’s house.
Recently, Debra Harrell, a mother of a 9-year-old girl, let her child play in the park while she went to work her shift at McDonald’s. She gave the child a cell phone and instructed her to call if needed. Now Harrell is in jail and the child is in the care of the state of South Carolina.
I know this is going to sound shocking to many people, but our kids have to live on this planet when we are gone. Why can’t they be alone in a busy park at 9 years old with a cell phone? We learn our phone numbers and addresses by kindergarten. A 9-year-old child has some ability to take ownership of herself and make responsible decisions.
Cue the chorus of stranger-danger abduction and child-molestation criers.
The fact is the reality of stranger molestation and abduction is much less frightening when one realizes that family members and acquaintances present a much more sinister and real threat. The current data on the National Center for Missing and Exploited children website seems to support this fact.
Our children are more at risk from us than strangers. A busy park is not any more risky for a 9-year-old alone or supervised. Consequently, more than half of children under 5 who are murdered are killed by their parents.
Why is Debra Harrell in jail?
As a mother, do I imitate the current cultural climate and helicopter over every move my child makes, or do I give him the room to grow and allow that a certain amount of risk is essential to his proper growth and independence from me?
A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, titled “The Overprotected Kid” by Hanna Rosin, explores this further. The article does so by first placing readers in the midst of a unique playground called “The Land.” In a nutshell, The Land, located in Wales, is most reminiscent of a junkyard. Play equipment consists of old toys, pallets, tires and other random pieces of refuse. Kids light fires, play in creeks, etc. Oh, and they often come without their parents. It appears to be chaos. It is, and it is anything but.
The fact is that letting our kids explore their environments, feel fear and escape our gaze every now and then is actually good for them. Part of healthy child development is learning how to navigate hairy situations without aid or input of parents.
My son likes walking on my bed, and occasionally he walks off the edge. I tried to stop him, relocate him and tell him that if he walks too close to the edge, he might fall. At his age, experience is still his best teacher, so I just gave in to the fact that he was going to do it and realize that if he doesn’t like falling, he will stop walking off the bed. Turns out, I was correct. He doesn’t walk off the bed anymore because he realized that falling is no fun. I didn’t make that realization — he did.
I don’t mention this to seem irresponsible or to lord over anyone my parental prowess. It is just to say that allowing our kids risk and space is OK. It is better than good; it is essential. Kids need to be able to make the mistakes that help build survival skills — skills they will use after their parents are gone.
At any park, there are kids with parents standing nearby, arms up to catch their precious child’s every slip. There are also kids who come unattended, and no one thinks to call the police or do anything more than grumble about the occasional unattended child who gets out of line. When I was a 9-year-old kid, that park was my neighborhood. I would leave the house in the morning and not come back until nightfall.
What makes Debra Harrell a villain?
The statistics haven’t changed, yet we have become more fearful. Perhaps it is time to revolutionize our parenting and do less of it.