Eye On The Kids
By KARA YORIO STAFF WRITER | The Record
Go outside and play.
Those four words sent generations of elementary school kids out the door on their own each summer. The instruction was typically followed by another four-word directive: Be home before dinner.
These days, you'd be hard-pressed to find neighborhoods full of 6- and 7-year-olds in yards or streets, parks or playgrounds without adult supervision.
One of the most difficult and debated parental decisions is when to let kids be on their own -- walk to school or the park with friends, go into town or even stay at the house without an adult. Some adamantly believe there's only one choice: Never allow children out of sight until middle school and beyond or send an 8-year-old off on a solo bike ride around the neighborhood without a second thought. Most of us, though, sit somewhere in the middle.
We want to instill independence and a sense of adventure, but can't quite bring ourselves to do it most of the time. The what-ifs overwhelm. Accidents can happen, but it's the abductions that haunt us, the high-profile missing children cases whose names echo in our minds: Joan D'Alessandro, Etan Patz, Adam Walsh, Polly Klaas, Megan Kanka.
Sure, the abduction of a child by a stranger is statistically rare, but if it's my daughter does it matter how rare it is? If it's my kid that disappears on that first day I let her ride her bike around the block to her friend's house then does it matter how many other kids do it without incident every single day? But why can't I put those fears aside and give my daughter the same freedom I enjoyed?
Or at least I thought I had enjoyed.
My mind runs memory reels of me, age 5 or perhaps even younger, off around the corner from my house, playing with friends in the cul-de-sac near my Maryland home. My mother is not a part of the scene until she stands at the front door, sounding a horn to call me and my sister home. My older sister's memories are similar -- full of days wandering in parentless packs around the neighborhood.
Decades later, however, our mother is quick to correct me. Most of the time, she said, I was in our yard with a bunch of neighborhood kids and we were carefully rounded up by our Welsh corgi Buffy, who knew the perimeter of the yard, herded us like sheep if we tried to wander and was not kind to strangers.
When we ventured off the property into the cul-de-sac or beyond, she said, there was a neighborhood parent watching or one of the area teenagers were with us. Also, she notes, I was never alone. I had my sister and a neighborhood full of kids. We were always a group.
At the end of the conversation, she added something that sounded like a sign of the times I'm parenting in, not the one I grew up in. Nearly 40 years after the fact, she wanted it known -- on the record -- that she was a good parent. She paid attention. She was not neglectful.
"I don't want to get hauled off," she said laughing.
The Meitiv case
That is no joke anymore, of course. Most know the story of a Maryland family that has become a lightning rod for this issue. In December, Danielle and Sasha Meitiv were accused of neglect by the state for allowing the children, ages 10 and 6, to walk together around their suburban neighborhood without an adult. The parents have said they always know where their children are and are trying to give them independence.
An investigation found "unsubstantiated child neglect," which allows Children's Protective Services to keep a file open for five years.
In April, the family found itself in trouble with the law again when officers picked up their unattended kids at the park and took them to CPS offices. Officials did not contact the parents -- who said they were frantically looking for their kids after they were late to get home -- until hours later, according to the Meitivs.
Maryland law prohibits children younger than 8 from being unattended in a home or car but doesn't reference being outside. A person must be at least 13 years old to supervise a child younger than 8. My sister, at 9 and four years older than me, would walk home from school with me. We never found ourselves in the back of a police car like the Meitiv children.
New Jersey has no such law about kids being left at home or in cars, and what to do with those walking without adults outside is at the discretion of local police forces.
"While age is considered when evaluating a child's capacity to care for him or herself, it is one of many factors, including, but not limited to, developmental and health status, maturity and judgment, trustworthiness, capacity to respond to an emergency, anticipated time without adult supervision, availability of trusted family, friends, and neighbors for support, and general safety of the location," a New Jersey State Police spokesman said in an email. "A parent should carefully consider these factors when deciding if a child is capable of caring for him or herself."
At 9, my daughter is just starting to enjoy some independence. Being in the back yard alone is OK. There's a fence and I can see her out the kitchen window. She's allowed to run something to the neighbor's house by herself or play basketball in the driveway -- admittedly, with the door open and the dog keeping watch at the screen. I sometimes wonder what will happen if a police car makes its periodic trip down the road or a neighbor we don't know well sees her outside. Will they knock on the door? Will I be deemed irresponsible or neglectful?
Parenting, like the children, can be a product of its environment.
"I think that among middle-class parents, there is a lot of acute anxiety about a world that's become highly unequal and I think a lot of what people call helicopter parents -- which is an awkward term -- I think that there is a lot of monitoring of kids that has to do with making them be the best that they can possibly be," said sociologist Margaret Nelson, author of "Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times."
This debate itself, never mind the ability to hover at all times, is largely an economic luxury.
'So much judgment'
"You can't watch your kids if you're working three jobs," said Nelson, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Then there is the other factor, the undeniable feeling of watchful eyes along with the self-criticism. As one Ridgewood mother of two summed it up so perfectly, "There's so much judgment."
If everyone else hovers and I go inside, am I a bad parent? Will people talk about how selfish I am?
If everyone else allows their kids to head to the park around the corner alone, but I follow behind, am I too paranoid? Am I the crazy, nervous mom making her child neurotic?
As I wonder if I'm doing irreparable psychological damage to my daughter when I allow my decisions to be ruled by this worry-fueled parenting, Nelson eases the guilt a bit.
"I'm not a psychologist," said Nelson. "Psychologists will say it's doing terrible things. Psychologists will say it's making the kids neurotic and it's making the kids fearful. I think these hyper-parented children have other skills. I don't necessarily think it's doing something terrible to them. It may be doing something different to them than was done to you or me."
Her students, she said, have many skills that past generations did not.
"They've just got a lot of aplomb, you know?" she said. "They've been carefully parented and it shows in a lot of ways. Maybe they're less mature. Maybe they have some kind of different anxieties, but I won't come down on the ground that it has made them less independent or less autonomous or more neurotic or any of those things."
They are simply different -- not better, not worse. Let that momentarily pause the internal debate for those of us who want to tell our kids to go out and play, but too often find the words getting caught in our throats as we head out the door behind them.