Children and Independence – How Much is Too Much?

On April 4th, 2008, Lenore Skenazy shocked readers of the New York Sun with her editorial, “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone.” (http://www.nysun.com/) In it, she describes how, after many months of pleading on the part of her son Izzy, she left him at Bloomingdales with a subway card and map, and $20 and let him make his way home. Alone. Which he did, beaming ear to ear with newfound confidence.

istock_000006267262xsmall.jpgWhat was the point of this endeavor? According to Skenazy, it was to strike back against a concept of parenting and childhood that increasingly resembles a prison lockdown. “We become so bent out of shape over something as simple as letting your children out of sight on the playground that it starts seeming on par with letting them play on the railroad tracks at night. In the rain. In dark non-reflective coats…As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating — for us and for them.”

The public’s reaction was as swift and as strongly felt as it was divided. Half the people castigated her for putting her child in danger (some even wanted her arrested for child abuse), while the other half lauded her as being a sort of messiah of sensible parenting in a time of rampant paranoia and shared their own childhood stories of spending long summer days running around without parental supervision, riding the subway alone and walking to school on their own.

The problem, Skenazy notes, comes from the misidentification of risk. Child abduction is actually exceedingly rare and getting rarer. Furthermore, the vast majority of abductions are committed by family members, friends or other known individuals, not strangers. However, it’s those rare and horrific exceptions that stand out in our minds – and unfortunately, what scares us most is what we tend to base our actions on, regardless of how unlikely it is to occur. In doing so, we spend vast amounts of energy trying to protect kids against extremely unlikely events, which is impossible, says Skenazy, “like trying to create a shield against being struck by lightning.”

The result, she says, is a nation of parents who are terrified to let their kids out of their sight, and a nation of kids who graduate from childhood incapable of handling even basic life support tasks. In interviews following the article, Skenazy alludes to college students who still send essays back home for Mom and Dad to edit, and to one young woman sends her mother snapshots while she’s trying on clothes to ask for advice, apparently incapable of deciding on her own. Her supporters concur, repeatedly citing their own experiences with fully-grown but functionally incapable “adults.”

This is a tricky subject for parents. Just where is the line between undue risk and over protection? How do you know if you’re making a rational decision about the safety of your child, or reacting to fear and paranoia?

The fact is, there are no easy answers. Each child is different, and matures at different rates. Even among siblings, some younger children may be capable of independence while their older counterparts will still be clinging to your hand.

But one thing Skenzay has right is that we’re all constantly exposed to a barrage of fear messages. And as humans, we have a strong tendency to judge powerfully affective events (particularly scary or horrific ones) as being more likely to occur than they really are. Trying to protect against these rare, but mentally “sticky” events, is all about trying to regain control over an environment we perceive as hostile, unpredictable and frightening. The fact is, your child is actually far less likely to be abducted walking to school than they are to be killed or injured in a car accident while you’re driving them there. But because we feel comfortable and in control in the familiar setting of the family sedan, if seems safer even though it’s not.

There’s no one right answer here. Each parent has to make these calls for themselves, and the children in their care. However, I would like to point out that the role of parents isn’t to deliver their child to his or her 18th birthday is as “like new” condition as possible. It’s to raise them so that they are able to survive on their own – successfully, happily and with confidence. And while it’s instinctive to want to protect our children from any and every danger we can, in the end failing to teach independence, self-sufficiency and confidence may be the biggest risk of all.

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