Raising Safe, Independent Kids

A few people have asked my opinion about the Maryland parents whose kids, age 10 and 6, were allowed to walk home nearly a mile without an adult. According to the Washington Post

On Dec. 20, [the child's father] Alexander [Meitiv] agreed to let the children, Rafi and Dvora, walk from Woodside Park to their home, a mile south, in an area the family says the children know well.

The children made it about halfway.

Police picked up the children near the Discovery building, the family said, after someone reported seeing them.

The family is now under investigation by Child Protective Services. Both parents say that they thought carefully about whether their children were prepared for this walk, and that they have deliberately trained their kids to learn a healthy and responsible independence. 

Before we go any further, it is worthwhile to note that, in some states, Child Protective Services acts intrusively and unjustly, and harasses families who are doing nothing wrong; while in other states, CPS is understaffed and ineffective, failing to protect kids who really are being neglected or abused. It is also extremely important to realize that, when there is an ongoing investigation involving CPS, the agency is legally prohibited from commenting on the case; but the parents may say anything they like in public. If there is an open investigation, then you, the reader, are by definition getting only one side of the story.

That being said, I largely sympathize with the parents in this story, and the facts as they have been reported don't indicate anything even verging on neglect. It's good and natural for parents to want to keep their kids safe, but it's healthy for the entire family to acknowledge that our main job as parents is to prepare kids for the rest of their life. A kid who has never learned to judge for himself when it's safe to cross the street is a kid who is unsafe. 

Still, it's not easy to find that balance between bubble wrapping your kids and throwing them to the wolves. My husband and I are constantly reevaluating how much freedom and responsibility to give our nine kids, who range in age from 16 to 3. Here are a few of the things we consider when we make decisions about safety and independence:

Remember that it's about them, not us. Responsibility is good for kids, and a little boundary-pushing is a good thing. We should make our decisions based on what would be best for the kids, not on what would make us feel most secure as worried mommies and daddies. 

Personality matters more than age. Some kids are more sensible than others; some are open-hearted and trusting when they shouldn't be; some are reckless and looking for thrills; some mean no harm, but have their head in the clouds.  Some kids are unhealthily fearful, some are dangerously carefree. Age has something to do with it, but not everything; so it makes no sense to say "All kids can handle such-and-such when they hit such-and-such an age." Make your choices based on the person you know your child to be, not on who his friends or siblings are, or who you remember being at that age.

Understand the neighborhood. We've lived in cities and villages, nice towns and crummy towns. There are some places I'd let my young kids play outside unattended, and others where I don't feel safe even locked inside my car. How sensible and well-prepared your kids are is only one part of the equation. If you're new or not sure, ask neighbors, local business owners, the children's librarian, the local teachers, or the local police -- anyone who sees first hand how the neighborhood operates day-t0-day. 

Constantly reevaluate as a parent -- but don't constantly harp on safety in front of your kids. This will make nervous kids paranoid, and will make overconfident kids want to rebel and take stupid chances. It's a good idea to think over some standard rules and to make sure that your kids know them by heart--but talk about other things, too, not just safety safety safety.

Do whatever you can to make sure you kids feel comfortable talking to you, or to some trusted adult. This way, they will ask about situations they are unsure about, rather than just muddling through with their inexperienced brains, or worrying their parents will mock them, or freak out. And be responsive if you become aware that they feel either unsafe or squelched. Their point of view is not the final word, of course, but it does matter.

And if you are really worried that your family will be persecuted unjustly if you give them some freedom, call the local police stations ahead of time and let them know that your kids will be doing something that you consider safe. It couldn't hurt to have it on record that you are in control of the situation, and a responsive police force will appreciate being kept in the loop. (Obviously this will only work in certain neighborhoods, and might be met with baffled irritation by some police departments.)