Of Chauffeuring Children, Stranger Danger, Shame, and Communication

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Origami Mommy (aka Christine Gross-Loh, whom I’ve interviewed on this blog) has a really interesting post today, “Free-range kids,” about how Japanese school children walk to and from school by themselves starting when they are six or seven years old. They usually walk in little groups and they learn safety tips in school.

My older brother and I always walked to school by ourselves. When I was in fifth grade I walked about two miles to ballet class after school, to my friends’ houses, and to work for Sally Davis as a mother’s helper. By sixth grade, after my parents divorced, I took the T by myself to commute from my mom’s apartment in downtown Boston to my dad’s house in Newton and back again. The fare was one dime.

This year my older girls, who were 10 and 9 years old, biked to school by themselves.

We try to use our car as little as possible so when my kids want to go someplace, they have to figure out how to get themselves there and home again.

Since our town is so small (about three square miles), they can usually bicycle or walk anywhere they want to go.

Chauffeuring kids to school or after school activities has become an unfortunate habit in America. It’s healthier for children to walk or bike, it’s almost always just as fast where we live since our town is so small, and it’s a lot easier for parents once the kids are old enough to go themselves.

But even though I try to let my kids have the freedom they are ready for, I worry about it.

A year ago James was biking the girls home from school when they encountered some high school girls on foot screaming and giggling.

“There’s a naked man masturbating in the bushes!” they cried.

James called the Ashland police. They came right away and nabbed him. The officer called James back later to thank him. The police had been trying to catch the man for some time.

Then last December there were reports of three incidents of sexual assault in one month in Ashland.

James (who also walked everywhere from an early age) and I both have scary memories from our childhoods.

“Hi little boy,” a young man in the park playing basketball called to me when I was walking home from school one day. Though I usually walked with my brother, I was alone that day. I was probably six years old.

“I’m not a little boy!” I said innocently, laughing at the funny idea.

“You’re not? Prove it!”

“I don’t like trucks,” I announced, proud to have thought of something.

“Lots of boys don’t like trucks.”

Here’s where my memory gets muddled. But somehow this man convinced me to show him my privates. I sat on a bench and pulled down my pants and pointed to my vulva. “There!”

Then he said he would give me a dime. But the dime was in his car. Would I come with him to get it?

It took that long for me to get scared. I was too little to know that you don’t pull down your pants for a stranger but I was old enough to remember that you don’t get into a car with a stranger.

I said something about needing to go home. And then I ran. With my heart pounding in my throat, I ran as fast as I could to get away from that man.

He was a bad man. But I was worse. I was naughty. I had done something to be ashamed of. I had talked to a stranger, and showed him my privates.

I was too ashamed of myself to tell my parents. I knew they would be mad at me because I had done something wrong.

When I wrote a column about the incident for our local newspaper, there were angry letters to the editor from some readers. One wrote privately to the editor-in-chief complaining that the subject matter was “inappropriate.” Instead of feeling sad for the little girl who carried such a big secret for so long, that reader found it distasteful that I would write about it at all.

Whether in Japan or America, the world can be a scary place. We all want desperately to protect our children. It’s tempting to try to be at their side at all times. But it’s also impossible and, as they get old enough to crave freedom and responsibility, infantalizing.

No matter how vigilant you are, there will be times when your children are on their own.

Kids need their freedom. They also need to know that they can talk to you, even if they are ashamed of something, even if someone warns them not to tell (especially then).

I think life skills and open communication will protect our children, not driving them from place to place.

Given that accidents are the number one killer of American children every year, why do you think we’ve become so habituated to driving our children? Do you let your children walk by themselves? What do you think about the best ways to keep our children safe?

Photo courtesy of Sean Bagshaw, Outdoor Exposure


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on Monday, July 12th, 2010 at 10:02 am and is filed under safety.
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