Today’s news:

Leave your kids alone for a change!

for The Brooklyn Paper

Maybe it was the Bloody Mary at lunch, maybe it was the fact that I was on a bike in Brooklyn for the very first time and I felt like I was a kid again, riding free and easy like I did growing up in Tucson. But I didn’t even stop to think for a second one recent Sunday before sending my 7-year-old into the Ninth Street Playground by himself to swing while I continued blissfully along the new controversial bike path.

“You go, honey, I’ll meet you,” I said. I gave him no tornado disaster plan, no cellphone, no laundry list of who to look out for or not talk to along the way. I just left.

It didn’t occur to me until after I was sailing along freely that such a thing as sending a 7-year-old into the park alone is just not done around these parts. I returned in 10 minutes, then, rather than the half hour or more that I wanted to ride, but I stopped to wonder why.

Earlier, Oscar had taken the car key and run outside and across the street to get his scooter from the car, something, again, that I hadn’t questioned until after the fact. Then, though, I had a sharp pang when I thought of the cars that turn fast onto our busy street from Seventh Avenue and zoom down. I horrormagined his sweet self being mowed down. I was glad this only occurred to me after he’d gone, glad that I had sent him out easily and not nervously except to say gently, “Make sure you look both ways before you cross.” He, of course, was fine.

In discussing child leash length with a friend later, I copped to having left my son at the playground, and letting him cross the street alone, somewhat sheepishly. Was it the right thing to do?

“I know they need freedom,” I said, “but then I almost get hit 100 times a day crossing the street around here.”

She nodded in agreement and then, as people often do when you share first, she came clean, looking around first to make sure no one else was within earshot, to ensure that she wouldn’t be reported on Park Slope Parents.

“I actually lost my kids recently,” she said. “In the park, for like 25 minutes.”

I might have sucked in my breath when she said it, not judging, just imagining what that must have been like, for her and for them, for these little big-eyed moppets, 5 and 7.

“I saw someone I know and she asked where the kids where and I had to say, ‘I don’t know, have you seen them?’” she said. It was the ultimate feeling-like-a-bad-parent moment, especially when you’ve purposely given your kids freedoms others believe they shouldn’t have because you think it’s good for them. In defense mode (to herself as much as to me), she said, “They were just on their bikes and, then, they were gone.”

I could imagine her panic, the kind I flew into recently when Oscar couldn’t be found after school, didn’t hear his name over the loudspeaker or being shouted around the yard because he was so enmeshed in his Harry Potter book.

Even if we believe that they need to learn to be independent, these moments are why we’re tempted to stick to them like glue.

But the lesson learned, in the end, was not that kids shouldn’t get lost, but that maybe that they should.

“When we finally found them,” my friend said, “I asked how the little one had managed up the big hill, the one I usually have to push her on, and it turns out that my son, who usually rides ahead, stuck with her and helped her. They were in it together.”

I imagined them then, like the kids in “Land of the Lost,” teaming up to survive against the threat of dinosaurs.

“They’re probably closer now,” I said.

She nodded. “They are.”

It occurred to me then, like it often does, how much of a disservice I do my kids by keeping them close just out of my own fears of the worst things happening, the things that so rarely happen that they are major news events when they do. It is hard, though, not to think of those horror stories we are now privy to 24/7 even though they are far the exception to the rule. Kids are almost never snatched from the park, except occasionally by a parent in a custody battle. When they got lost for a bit, they almost always get found. And then, if they didn’t like it, they themselves will learn to be more careful to stick close. If they did like it, well then, good luck. They will fly freer, and you will have to worry, or try not to worry if that’s at all possible.

It is an age-old argument in New York, of course, kids’ freedom, one being fought most recently by Lenore Skenazy, then-columnist for the New York Sun, who was lambasted heavily years back for letting her 9-year-old ride the subway alone. She still calls for one day every year when parents should take their kids to the park and leave them there, but I’d say this summer, we should do it on more than one day. Let’s believe in our kids’ abilities to make good choices on their own in little ways every day. Maybe then, they’ll be able to believe it, too.

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Reader Feedback

Cynthia from Clinton Hill says:
The first time i let my kid alone she accidently knocked some kid off the slide and the kid hit his head on the cushion ground, but still he screamed i came over to see what happened and the Dad picked up his child off the ground and then i asked the dad what happened? he grunted and had a attitude, and i thought ok is he gonna be ok? the jerk of a father ignored me and i was like wow typical parent real ignorant, so then i came over to the mom and asked is your son gonna be ok? and the B***h ignored me too. what did i do wrong? i was concerned. so yeah thats why i wont leave my kid alone, so i dont have a run in with douches. kids are kids, kids gonna get hurt, kids need to stay home if you cant live life.
June 7, 2011, 1:05 am
hmmm says:
did you by any chance write this because Lenore Skenazy was just in the neighborhood speaking on this very subject ... at an event sponsored by Park Slope Parents who you vilify as judgmental in this very article? I used to think these things were coincidence and now I realize it's just lazy.
June 7, 2011, 8 am
Nancy McDermott from Park Slope says:
While I appreciate the loyalty, Hmmm, what's more important to me, as one of the organizers of the Free-Range Kids meeting last weekend, is that we start to have more discussions like this in the neighborhood.

In fact there are a significant number of families on our list who do let their kids do things independently -- they're just doing it on the low down. There are also lots of families who'd like to be a little more free-range who don't because they are afraid of what people will think. Having these discussions out in the open means people who are comfortable with experimenting with loosening the kid reins can find support for doing that.

I do want to correct one misimpression about Park Slope Parents though and that is that parents don't report on one another on our list. In fact it's more like parents report TO other parents on the list as in " this happened at the playground, do you think I did the right thing?"

To which the answer might be "Yeah, that seems reasonable" or possibly "What crack were you smoking?" Either way, it's good to have access to that collective common sense.

It seems to me that one of the most important points about being a parent today is learning to be tolerant and supportive of other people's decisions even if they wouldn't be right for us. No matter where you stand on Free-Range kids, that would be a step forward for all of us

Nancy McDermott
Editor of the Park Slope Parents blog
June 7, 2011, 10:54 am
common sense from bay ridge says:
What your neighbors think is not important. It's what you would think of yourself if your child gets snatched and you never see them again. This city is dangerous enough for adults, leaving 7 year olds alone is the height of stupidity.
June 7, 2011, 12:38 pm
really? from park slope says:
Isn't it illegal to leave a 7 year old unsupervised in a public playground?

Yeah, there's snatching, which is unlikely. And also the chance that the kid might fall and hurt himself (more likely) or fall prey to adult's inappropriate behavior (which happens)...
June 7, 2011, 1:14 pm
George from Out of towner says:
Recently at a wedding my sister and her 18 year old daughter were getting ready for a post wedding brunch. The daughter said "I wish I was old enough to go down to the lobby by myself". My sister looked at her (probably flashing to the next 20 years of a kid at home and said: "You are". How was this situation created? Why would an 18 year old be uncomfortable in a hotel lobby with a majority of guests being family. Never less than 40 family and friends in the lobby.

My kids are grown but I think we tended to be a little to protective. My son had a scary incident when he was around 9 with a crazy neighbor, and not sure we ever recovered from that one.

I am proud of my duahgter, who recently moved to Brookly, 20 years old, no job and doesn't know a soul.
June 7, 2011, 2:46 pm
Bob from Brooklyn says:
Picture this: I am 9 years old, living on the Upper West Side in 1979. I have been taking the 86th street bus across the park to school by myself for a year. I got mugged. Yes, my precious innocence was taken from me along with my "mug money." That's right, fully prepared to bribe the criminals! And, yes, I began to keep my wits about me when I walked down the street, and continued to as the city's crime rate went up and down over the years.

Advice: use your common sense and really? think about the likelihood of kidnapping, being ignored after falling down in a crowded playground, and the inappropriate behavior of strangers as opposed to one's parents, siblings, auts and uncles, religious and political leaders.
June 7, 2011, 3 pm
Nancy McDermott from Park Slope says:
No. It is not illegal to leave your 7 year old in the park. I think it's really the mistrust of other adults that holds people back.

Which is a shame because it's become a self-fulfilling prophesy. For instance a little girl drowned in Britain a few years ago. She had escaped from her pre-school and was spotted by a man passed her toddling near the road. He considered going back to get her but he was afraid of being accused of abducting her. She fell in the pond and drowned.

The truth is most adults, especially the ones who tend to hang out in playgrounds with their own kids would help a child.
June 7, 2011, 3:27 pm
Becky says:
"It's what you would think of yourself if your child gets snatched and you never see them again."

The chances of you killing your kid in an auto accident the next time you buckle them in for a drive are significantly greater than them ever being snatched by a predator. Yet strangely, we never get hounded by folks to think, "what would you think of yourself if you got into an accident and your child was killed" every time we decide to drive. Regardless, what would I think of myself? What would it matter anymore?! My child would be GONE, do you think I would suddenly feel better about the situation if I could say, "Well, gosh, at least it's not my fault."
June 7, 2011, 6:58 pm
Dave Lieber from former Manhattan boy says:
Hi, I just released a book on this very subject last week. It's called Bad Dad. I'm a newspaper columnist in Texas. One day a few years back I told my then 11-year-old son, who was acting up in a restaurant, to walk home. Turns out that a police department I had investigated for a dozen years for my newspaper column arrested me! Bad Dad is a true-story Texas thriller. I invite you to read Chapter One at my new Website:
June 7, 2011, 9:06 pm
common sense from bay ridge says:
It's true that the only reason not to leave your kid alone in the park is mistrust of other adults. Otherwise, it would be a great idea. Just look around at the characters of all shapes and stripes lurking around when you walk around. Do you really want your 7 year olds exposed to them on their own?

Of course urban living is very dangerous to children in may different ways, and we all take risks raising our children here, but any little thing than can be done to help them have a healthy childhood is worth it. Even if it means stunting their growth a little bit.
June 8, 2011, 12:19 am
Carol from Park Slope says:
"Just look around at the characters of all shapes and stripes lurking around when you walk around. Do you really want your 7 year olds exposed to them on their own?"

Yeah, actually, I do. I can't speak for Bay Ridge but the vast majority of folks we encounter on a daily basis are big-hearted, caring people who I've seen put themselves between kids and danger. It might be the fruit guy who catches the run-away toddler before she trips and goes flying into the street. It might be the person who helps the kid who's lost in the big playground find their parents. Where are all these sinister lurkers? In Bay Ridge? In Canarsie? In Red Hook?

Every place has its share of weirdos - though for the record the vast majority seem in the suburbs right now. But the fact is the city is safer today than it was in 1963. No, not every place is safe but there are a lot of places in Brooklyn that are safe. Really safe. And there's no rational reason why kids shouldn't be alowed to play in the park without their parents.
June 8, 2011, 12:40 pm
Jbob from Park Slope says:

Kid in Kensington is left to walk alone from camp is abducted and chopped up. Still think its a good idea to let your kids walk around by themselves????????????????????????????????
July 13, 2011, 7:29 pm
susan desocio from south bklyn says:
hey stepanie, gonna leave yer kid alone again in the park after what happened to that poor boy in Bklyn. Killer placed some parts of the boy 3 blocks from me. I went there & lit a candle. Hate to have to light one for your child.
July 14, 2011, 11:30 am
susan desocio from south bklyn says:
By the way, what u did was considered child neglect & BCW should cofme to yer house for a home visit. Put the liquor down, got the eff off yer bike & mind yer child
July 14, 2011, 11:32 am
bobo from coney from coney says:
That was horrible, what happened to that poor kid this summer.

But like all city dangers -- it just comes down to statistics. Those parents did nothing wrong. Their kid was just incredibly unlucky.

Just like people on the sidewalk who get hit by cars, or people in hurricanes who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You will never, ever be able to prevent every possible contigency. You have to weigh statisticial likelihood, your kid's disposition, how well you warned them, how much you trust them to have common sense, etc.

Your kid could be playing with his friends in your own living room, and have a rough-n-tumble and hit his head in the exact wrong place and die. And modern parents would blame you for it.

Use common sense. Know your kid. And understand that there is no such thing as absolute safety, and your kid needs a chance to develop a self.
Sept. 3, 2011, 1:47 am

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