14 April 2008

9yr Old Alone in City

An opinion letter in the NY Sun last week is by a woman who left her nine year old boy to self-navigate his way home alone, using the subway and walking in NYC. Interesting read:

Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

I think about this kind of thing more each year. At what age can a kid be left to walk to the corner store, ride a city bus, or walk to the public library alone?

I guess I'll know the time when it comes.

“Parents are in the grip of anxiety and when you’re anxious, you’re totally warped,” the author of “A Nation of Wimps,” Hara Estroff Marano, said. We become so bent out of shape over something as simple as letting your children out of sight on the playground that it starts seeming on par with letting them play on the railroad tracks at night. In the rain. In dark non-reflective coats.

The problem with this everything-is-dangerous outlook is that over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can’t do anything on his own eventually can’t.


DP said...

I heard about this and both watched the Today Show interview with her and her son and listened to the NPR piece. When my wife and I lived in NYC, we didn't have any kids, but were approaching that point. We definitely discussed such things and I remember having a conversation with the mother across the hall.

My conclusion was, as in most parental decisions, "it depends". Besides the particulars of the when and where (Sunday afternoon on the Upper East Side/Murray Hill is not exactly the South Bronx at 2 am), it depends on the kid. Every kid is different. Some have the street smarts to handle the range of likely situations, some don't.

In this case, the kid was 9 (turned 10 a couple weeks later) and had probably ridden the NYC subways and buses every day of his life. And his mom determined that he was, in fact, capable of handling it. My neighbors daughter didn't really start venturing out on her own until she was about 13-14.

We're not to the point of making such decisions regarding our daughter yet (she's almost 2), but I hope to at least have an open mind regarding such things. Yes, bad things happen to kids in the world. But there is also such a thing as overprotecting your kids to the point that they can't make decisions for themselves when they need to.

Chris S said...

The piece on NPR was really very interesting. My wife and I don't have kids yet, but I hope we do have the courage to allow them to grow and explore the way that we were both allowed to grow and explore when we were growing up...

Dan Tasman said...

I hate resorting to this, but since there's no contect information ...

There's a large linkroll to various urban planning-related Web sites in pruned, but Cyburbia is among the missing. Cyburbia (http://www.cyburbia.org), founded in 1994, is the Internet's oldest continuously operating planning-related Web site. Cyburbia has served the planning community for nearly 14 years with very little funding or financial remuneration. The Cyburbia Forums (http://www.cyburbia.org/forums) went online in 1996, and today remains a vibrant virtual third place for planners, students and others interested in the built environment; 5,800 members, 400,000 posts, and still growing.

CityKin said...

^Mike, I have contact info on the left sidebar. Send emails to mike@citykin.com Maybe I need to make the contact info more prominent.

I know of Cyburbia, but haven't read much there. Do they have an urban family/parenting thread?

bsherm said...

Loved the story. She has created a web site called http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/.

It hits home for us. We moved downtown (or technically Downtown Near, we are just north of Liberty) a little over 3 years ago. I figure everyone wrote us off for kids at that point. Now we have a 10-month old, and I figure everyone is waiting for us to move to the 'burbs. We are trying to educate friends and family... :-)

Thanks for the site.

CityKin said...

Returning to the post subject: I didn't know that this story was already on NPR and the Today Show. I'm glad to see the story getting a lot of discussion.

It is very common for kids who are 9-12 walk to the store, go to the pool, or ride bikes here in OTR/downtown Cincy. My kids are still way too young, but as I said, I think I will know when they are ready.

Anonymous said...

We've got a 9yo girl - been downtown off & on through her life. We're working on building her independence, but I think it will be a few more years before we'd have her walking to the corner on her own or taking the bus around town.

For better or worse, I think it is different with a daughter than a son. We have gotten mailers about predators within a few blocks of us - so it only seems responsible to take care with her.

While there can be too much protection, it comes from the very real dangers that are out there for our children. In urban and in suburban and in rural areas.

DP said...

Regarding Corinne's last point - comparing urban/suburban/rural safety - if anyone's looking for the stats to "educate your friends" as bsherm noted, I'd suggest a book by one of my former professors:

Confronting Suburban Decline: Strategic Planning for Metropolitan Renewal
by David Phillips, with William H. Lucy

Among other things they looked at safety data for ubran vs. suburban living. Turns out when you remove non-random crimes, cities are safer. Not to mention all the social deterioration that comes with hiding behind the 8 ft privacy fence around your 1/3 acre lot.

Anonymous said...

I found this story interesting because it points out the vast discrepency in public perception about what is a risk and what actually is a risk. Where I work, for a public child welfare agency, we would never even consider this case. That doesn't mean people won't call us about it.

While every case requires a look at the particular situation and the particular child there are a few rules of thumb that we use to determine some appropriate expectations for childhood independence such as:
1. The Red Cross offers babysitting certification classes for children starting at 11 years old, meaning that at least some 11 year-olds can handle it.
2. School aged children home alone after school for an hour or two who know basic safety precautions and contact numbers is not alarming.
3. Pre-shoolers left in cars unattended for any amount of time is a big no-no unless you have a direct line-of-site to them and it is seriously short.
4. Any minor child home alone overnight is problematic.
5. School aged children playing outside unsupervised before dark is not necessarily troubling.

Now there are lots of caveats such as if you add some mental instability to some of these scenarios or a child who is frightened it changes the response. Also young babysitters caring for infants, multiple children or their own siblings would raise some concern. Thankfully, I am not aware of cases where the percieved "safety" of the neighborhood has been a factor in deciding a case. And I can personally attest to the fact that although there are hoards of unattended children outside in our historically unsafe neighborhood, OTR, our agency receives few if any calls about them being abused or molested by some stranger on the street. All of our cases take place in their homes. Ironically, some of them are probably safer outside.

valereee said...

I let my kids walk the to the local ice cream shops and bagel shops together by the time they were 8 and 11. And my youngest, I think she and same-age friends were doing it by the time they were ten. We'd walked these routes together before so they knew the way well, and the streets they had to cross are quiet with stop signs at the corners. It's still a bit nerve-wracking at first, but I do believe letting kids have some independence is important.

One hilarious note: on one of these trips, my kids were walking with their same-age cousins and at some point decided to throw sticks at passing cars. It was an EXCELLENT lesson for them when one car stopped, the window came down, and out leaned one of our neighbors who said, "Jane, I don't think your mother would want you doing that, do you?" Really brought home the point that even if mom can't see you, lots of folks around here know who you are.

Chris S said...

One great thing about her blog (freerangekids) is that it has all kinds of statistics about chances of harm, etc.

This issue real catches my heart because I very fondly remember that "first freedom" and how good that felt. A handful of T tokens, and a few dollars, to go ride the subway to the library. It was a route I had done hundreds of times before, but I can remember that trip like yesterday.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Queens in New York City. I think I was ten when I was allowed to take the bus by myself to the library, a twenty minute ride (that would have been 1965 -- ouch!). At twelve, my friends and I were allowed to take the bus to the subway, and then take the subway into Mahattan, as long as we went in a group and didn't go to The Village (the first place we went, naturally). We were all girls, so our parents might have been a bit more protective of us.

This whole debate about the nine-year old boy taking the subway by himself is ridiculous when you consider what happened a couple of years ago when Mayor Bloomberg hired that consulting firm to redo school transportation.

I don't remember the details, but kids all over the city, including kindergarteners, were left high and dry all over all over the place because the plan failed and they missed/couldn't find the buses they were supposed to take home.

I remember thinking how awful that would be, not knowing where your five-year old was or if he would find his way home. I was surprised anyone had the wherewithal to send their kids back the second day.

Blue Ash Mom

CityKin said...

Thanks for all the comments.

I personally never rode public transit until college, however I did feel lots of freedom on my bike as a kid. I did spend many long summer days out of sight of my parents, and they were the best days of my life.

I love this discussion. I actually can't wait until my son and daughter are old enough to navigate the city on their own. I think they will definitely be older than 9, but we'll have to see when we get there.

Interesting too, that my son just got a note sent home from his school saying that they were going on a field trip next week, and they will walk from Fairview Elementary to Findlay Market! Thats some steep hill walking!

liberal foodie said...

In India, I was always played outside with other kids and knew the neighborhood well enough to go far without my parents' worry. After moving to the States, everything changed; my parents were very protective of me. I don't know if it was because of new country, new language, new culture or sheer fear of losing their children and not knowing where to turn for help. Regardless of their reason, I now understand why they did it. Unfortunately it was a detriment for two reasons. 1. As a grown adult I fear walking through certain parts of the city. 2. I also am very protective of other parents' children. I fear they'll be kidnapped and never found again.

I hope that changes some day, but until then, no kids for me.

Sad but it's true.

Anonymous said...

My husband taught in the South Bronx and in Harlem when we lived in NY. Kids in those areas take public transportation by themselves all the time and no one blinks an eye. This kid takes the subway from Bloomie's and she's the worst mother in the world? Strange how perceptions of good parenting can vary over such a short distance.