When Toby was six, he went to the deli by himself…
He walked two blocks to our favorite deli, where he bought a pack of Starburst and ran back home. When he burst in the door, he was panting, cheeks flushed, elated at having been out in the world alone.
To be honest, I was a little nervous about his crossing the streets, but I held my breath, and glanced at the clock, and knew he could do it. And it was good for him! For both of us!
Remember how thrilling that feeling was? You had coins in your pocket, a route in mind, the world at your fingertips. The D.H. Lawrence quote applies: “How to begin to educate a child: First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone.”
Over the next year, however, Toby began resisting these adventures. Kind people would often ask, “Where’s your mom?” and he worried that he was getting in trouble. In our neighborhood, you rarely, if ever, see children under 9 or 10 years old walking around without adults. It’s New York City, after all.
So, how do you decide? In the fascinating New York Times story, “Motherhood in the Age of Fear,” Kim Brooks recounts having a warrant out for her arrest after leaving her four-year-old in the car (windows open, cloudy day) while she quickly nipped into the grocery store. Brooks argues that her child was 100% safe — and, moreover, that parents and kids should be free to make these decisions for themselves. She talked to cognitive scientist Barbara Sarnecka, who believes that children may not have the same rights as adults, but “‘they have some rights, and not just to safety. They have the right to some freedom, to some independence.’ They have a right, she said, ‘to a little bit of danger.'”
I’m so curious: Do you allow your kids to walk to school or the park by themselves? At what age? Is it accepted in your area? What about elsewhere in the world?
Interestingly, the New York Times featured comments from parents around the world. Here are a few:
“What really struck me was when I started to notice groups of mothers having coffees together: The Anglophone mothers sat next to each other facing outward, watching their children the whole time. The Swiss mothers sat facing each other around a table having a nice chat, with their backs to the children playing around them.” — Wrike, Switzerland
“Kids in primary school go shopping at the bakery and the supermarket by themselves, proud of their independence. We’re afraid too, of course. We just don’t want fear to ruin our — and our children’s — lives.” — Katrin, Germany
“All over Japan, it is common to send youngsters on complicated errands such as going alone into town to buy fish for dinner and come back with the correct change.” — AL, now living in Los Angeles
Back in Brooklyn, five-year-old Anton loves playing on the sidewalk outside our building. Well-meaning passersby inquire, “Where’s your mom, honey?” “Are you lost?” “Who’s watching you?”
No one. And maybe that’s okay?