Of Chauffeuring Children, Stranger Danger, Shame, and Communication


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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16 thoughts on “Of Chauffeuring Children, Stranger Danger, Shame, and Communication”

  1. Well, my first is not quite walking yet, but I’m really hoping to have my children walk and bike by themselves once they get to a certain age (which honestly I cannot specify now. it seems to me that it depends not only on me but on the kids, too). It’s going to require a move (which we are planning anyway; most likely overseas) because where we live it would be very difficult.

    I, too, was “free-ranging” when I was a kid – as far as I can remember! (which is about 5) and I’m hoping no to be to scared to give my kids the experience

  2. I’m so sorry that happened to you when you were a child. What a terrifying secret for a little girl to have to carry. I think it is wonderful and, hopefully, cleansing, that you wrote about it in a newspaper. Shame on the reader who thought it was inappropriate. I hope she isn’t a mother.

  3. It’s interesting as my 9 yr old daughter wants more freedom to bike to friends’ houses or go to the park with a friend, I am more cautious than I was with my son at this age. Usually I am okay with them having some freedom to roam, but usually they have to be with a friend. Safety in numbers!

  4. Well, first, I feel very sad for the little girl who thought she was bad, and angry at the people who think this is inappropriate to talk about.

    When I was five, I began to walk to school by myself. The same policeman, Van, whose full name was Clayton L. Van Duesen, would be at the corner of the only big street, and would stop traffic and watch me cross. How times have changed!

    Raising kids in a big city, it was always an issue: their safety, their freedom, my incredible desire to protect them. They often seemed to know how much freedom they could handle, and we’d try things out to see what felt comfortable. I remember my son telling me he wasn’t ready to cross 51st St. by himself, as I walked behind him and we pretended he was alone.

  5. I just heard an interesting interview on NPR about the correlation between loss of neighborhoods and air conditioning. At a time when many parts of the US are suffering a heat wave, I can totally see the correlation! Growing up I had a gaggle of neighborhood friends. We took the bus, rode our bikes and walked pretty much anywhere we wanted. My mom had a bell that she would ring when it was dinner time or bedtime but for the most part we were out of the house, wherever we wanted to go. This was less than 20 years ago but so much has changed. We just don’t see gangs of neighborhood friends anymore. That was really what kept us safe…having trustworthy friends and rarely traveling without them. Kids are often advised to stay indoors on hot days, in the A.C. and therefore don’t get the opportunity to explore and make friends spontaneously around the neighborhood.

    I am sorry that happened to you as a child. It is a good thing that you can now speak publicly about it if not for the public good then at least for your own conscience.

  6. i could not agree with this more. i’ve been giving my six and ten year-olds freedom to go to a local park by themselves. they love it. we have talked about rules and i feel that they are better prepared for dealing with stranger danger than they would be if we didn’t let them go out on their own at all.

    i live in a multi-cultural area and i’ve noticed that some other cultures give much more freedom to their kids than we do. in fact, seeing those groups of kids walking around by themselves is what inspired me to let the kids go off on their own.


  7. I learned early on that it is impossible to totally protect one’s children. My son, at about 3, had his adenoids removed, in France. He was taken to the operating room in an elevator by a member of the staff at the clinic, a man, in a very old, very slow moving elevator. Afterwards, once back home, my son told me the man had masturbated in front of him. My son did not understand at the time what was going on, but he described it all to me in detail. I realized then that we can do our absolute best to protect our kids but you never know what in the world will be thrown at them.
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..PB Boulangerie Bistro to Open for Dinner =-.

  8. Wow–I’m thinking about the letters people wrote to the paper. I think they prefer to live in denial. That’s all I can figure. I don’t understand that.

    I’m afraid to have my daughter walk alone for all the reasons that you mention, here, but I’m definitely going to walk with her rather than drive. I’ve, over the years, been trying to organize our lives so that we won’t have much use for a car. In some cases, I can’t get around it. But in many cases, just choosing a different dentist–one I can walk to–means I’ll be in my car less.
    .-= Alisa Bowman´s last blog ..The Hidden Camera Marriage =-.

  9. Children are at a great risk for sexual abuse, and we need to talk about it in order to prevent it. Survivors need to tell their stories, and we need to tell our children about good touching and bad touching from an early age.

    One thing we can do to keep our children safe is so simple: don’t make them hug or kiss anyone they don’t want to, and don’t accept affection from children that is forced by adults. I cringe when people tell their children to hug or kiss me, because I know it gives such a powerful message to the child “please this person is more important than what feels right to your body.”

    Regarding driving my child around, she’s still very young and hates being in a car. This suits both of us because we enjoy taking walks together.

  10. I’m so sorry that happened to you – and sorry you weren’t able to tell your parents. I agree with you that the most important thing is to foster an environment where kids feel free to talk.

  11. What a horrible experience. It takes a strong person to realise that despite your own experience, your children need to be informed, not locked in the house and constantly under adult supervision every moment. You are a strong mom.
    .-= Melanie´s last blog ..Suckers- =-.

  12. That is such a scary memory, Jennifer, made even worse by the shame you felt and that you couldn’t tell anyone. You saved yourself, though, by running; it’s way too scary to think of what could have happened.

    It is frightening out there for kids (and hence, their parents!) and it’s a really difficult and delicate balance between making them fearful and fostering their independence, for sure.
    .-= sheryl´s last blog ..Ten Easy Ways to Fight Cancer With Nutrition =-.

  13. What Tracy — and a bunch other folks said. How horrible for you. How courageous that you outed the guy. How hideous of those readers for commenting that you were inappropriate (deranged thinking) and for the numskull editor who ran their rants.

    What I also take away from this post is that you have a very valid, real, concrete experience to draw on for why you might hesitate to allow your kids to go “free range.” i find most folks here overly obsessed with safety. It’s really not healthy to live in fear all the time — or to transfer that feeling onto your kids. Good for you for striking what is, after all, a reasonable balance.
    .-= sarah henry´s last blog ..School Food- Japanese Style =-.

  14. What a thought-provoking post. Considering what happened to you as a child, it’s very easy to understand the belief parents have that if they (we) drive our kids we can have more control. But, of course, it’s no guarantee and, even if you gain control in one situation, what about the next and the next.

    Christine’s blog is great. Nice to see the connection here on Mothering.

  15. I don’t know which is more sad, that the experience happened or that you felt like you couldn’t tell your parents about it. I talk to my kids about strangers all the time, but I’m never quite sure if the lesson has sunk in.

    As far as biking or walking to school and elsewhere we just moved and chose our location in large part because we wanted to be able to get around without our car when possible. Our community is very bike/walker friendly and that makes a huge difference; there’s even cops on bikes with a very visible presence so I feel better about letting my kids go out solo.

  16. It is very interesting that there is a greater risk of children getting injured from being driven in a car than from walking or biking.

    We don’t own a car and chose to live in a city where we are close to schools, shopping, transit etc. However, sometimes we want to walk further, or faster, than my son is capable of. Though he is 5-years old, this means that we still occaisionally use a stroller (also bikes and scooter). Many people give us strange looks that he is too old for a stroller – but I remind myself that if the distance is too far, or if they are running late, or its too cold/wet, other people probably use their car. I know that we are modeling walking and knowing our neighbourhood and neighbours and I think these are important aspects to keeping children safe.

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