Saturday, June 18, 2011

Call Me Irresponsible

In some areas of the world, people habitually leave their children outside in strollers while they shop.

I had decided not to blog about this incident, as I was sure that it would open me up to a great deal of pushback, when I'm already feeling insecure as it is, but seeing the ridiculous situation my dear friend Erika (who actually could qualify for Mother of the Year) recently dealt with, I decided that keeping quiet about the paranoia entrenched in our society is not going to help anyone.

For each of the four years I taught high school English, I walked several classes of freshmen through reading To Kill a Mockingbird. This had its own unique joys and frustrations, but one of the greatest frustrations I felt year after year was having the students tell me what a terrible father Atticus was because he allowed his children to play outside unsupervised. The first couple of years, I told the students that life was different then. Parents didn't have to worry so much about their children. Some of the brighter kids pointed out that Atticus did, indeed, need to worry about Scout and Jem, since the denouement of the novel hinged on Bob Ewell's murder attempt on the children.

About two years ago, however, I read about a woman named Lenore Skenazy, who wrote about allowing her 9-year-old son (who was a born-and-bred New Yorker) to ride the subway home by himself in the middle of the day. For this, she was castigated as America's worst mother, and she subsequently started a website and a movement called Free Range Kids, which is all about allowing our children to have some measure of responsibility over themselves.

Reading about this woman and her movement crystalized the problem I had with my students thinking there was something wrong with Atticus Finch's parenting. I can remember long stretches of time from my childhood when I was playing or riding bikes outside and my parents were not in sight. I explored. I told secrets with friends. I felt free.

I know now that my parents always knew where I was and I was always within easy distance of help--both my own house and the houses of neighbors who would act in loco parentis. But my students haven't experienced this freedom. They are never out of the eyesight or at least earshot of an adult. How are they going to know how to behave if there is no one watching them?

I decided that I would not live my life in fear. I want my child to know that he can do things on his own. I want him to know that parents will not have to pick him up when he falls down--that he can do it for himself. I want LO to feel as though the world is his oyster, rather than a sadistic playground for creepers and weirdos, because on the whole it's more his oyster than it is a scary place.

So that brings me to a decision that I am still pondering. Last week, when I was visiting my parents in Baltimore, one evening my mother and stepfather needed to run an errand just when Mom would otherwise have been making dinner. Since LO was still feeling rather needy after the upheaval of the airplane ride, I knew it would be difficult for me to cook, but I offered to go pick up something from a local carryout. After I called in the order, Mom and Bryon took his car to Home Depot, and LO and I took my mother's car to the restaurant.

On the way there, LO dropped off into a deep sleep. He had not slept well at all the day before--our travel day--and had only slept fitfully for a short nap that day, so I was pleased to see that he was getting some much needed rest. However, it posed a problem for when I got to the carryout, as unbuckling his car seat would wake him up, getting him out of his car seat would wake him up, and leaving him to sleep in the car felt wrong.

After deliberating for the length of the drive, I decided to leave him to sleep in the car. I would be in and out in less than a couple of minutes, and he badly needed sleep. I knew that logically it was remarkably unlikely that baby-snatchers were waiting outside that particular suburban restaurant to steal my son. Nonetheless, I was a nervous wreck as I rolled down the windows (it was a warm day), and I glanced over my shoulder again and again as I walked into the restaurant.

Once in there, I had some more bad luck as there was only one cashier working and there was a bit of a line. My "in-and-out" turned into more of a 5 to 6 minute wait, me jittery the entire time. When I got my food and returned to the car, I encountered a very angry man with a cell phone who told me he had stood by my car and watched my son and that he had taken pictures of the license plates and would probably call the police.

You always wish you said something different in these situations. I just sputtered and said "I was only gone five minutes and he was sleeping." Of course this did nothing to placate the man. I wish I'd gotten a pen and paper and written down my name and address, telling him to please not bother my mother. I wish I'd known the statistics on child abductions off the top of my head. I wish I could have owned my decision to leave LO sleeping--and I frankly still can't quite do it.

(J, of course, always knows what to say to make me feel better. His response was "I hope you told this guy to go f--- himself." Instant relief for a guilty-feeling mother).

As of yet, there has been no contact from the police, who would probably laugh at this particular allegation. Considering how little police and CPS can do in cases of actual abuse (as I have seen in my years of teaching), I doubt anyone will care that I let my son get some uninterrupted sleep while I ran a five minute errand.

Though I will continue to reject paranoid and reactionary parenting, I will change how I go about it. I'm going to ask people for help. I will make my neighborhood and other mothers and fathers part of the in loco parentis village that I had as a child. But I reject the notion that the world is full of predators and that I must shield my son from dangers that are such remote possibilities as to be statistically insignificant. There are enough real things to worry about. And life's far too short to waste time on fear.


  1. Good for you. I'm actually dreading the switch from our infant car seats to the ones I can't port in and out of the car for this very reason. I have two good sleepers and I can run errands during afternoon nap time and just pop them in and out of the car seat bases.

    I had a similar upbringing to you and we were allowed to go exploring in the woods (which were very small) and ride our bikes around the neighborhood as long as we were home by the time my mom specified. In addition, I started babysitting for neighbors when I was 10. I was responsible and they were willing to pay me to watch their kids. Now that would be impossible!

    I agree that making your kids feel like the world is a scary place is not a way to raise healthy, independent people. I also love the Free Range Kids site and philosophy. I'm sure you're doing the best thing for LO.

  2. Lots of our friends with babies have this same dilemma all the time. We went to breakfast with a couple, their 3 year old and their 6 month old baby. They are more relaxed about the whole thing and since the baby was still sleeping and it wasn't hot, they left him in his seat, in the car right outside the restaurant where they could see it. When we started waking up, they brought him in and then found a quiet corner of the restaurant (away from our table), put him there and put a blanket over the seat (like a parrot) and he slept through the whole thing. I thought it was awesome.

  3. Thanks for blogging about this. Although I'm not a parent myself, my neighbors are raising their six children according to the Free Range philosophy, and I have to say I've never met such independent, well-adjusted, and happy kids.