Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Free the Grape and Fear Not

Many of my friends and I are celebrating or staring down a big milestone birthday. The one at which longevity statistics say, at least if you live in the US, that your time is more than half up.

Many of these same friends have very young children. Other friends plan to start families, on a fairly imminent basis.

My point: When our current batch of rug rats graduate from high school, many of us will be eligible for membership in the AARP.  (The majority won't be retiring, since the formerly magical age of 65 will come on the heels of the college tuition bills.)

The Grape's contemporaries are the most monitored, programmed, watched over generation in history. We've morphed, perversely, into a society that prizes independence and initiative, but only in adults.

Meanwhile the average age of new motherhood creeps ever older.

The logical conclusion: mom and dad won't be hovering at Junior's side forever, supervising every interaction and reviewing every decision.

He's going to need to learn to sort himself out.

Vis a vis the rest of the population.

The Grape is a sociable, chatty kid (most of the time). We live in the city, and because we have Lila the Dog, we're acquainted with many of our neighbors.

The other day, the Grape ran up to say hi to an old man we know from the dog park. As I was silently and smugly congratulating myself for his social poise, a complete stranger (a woman in her forties) snapped at me, saying, "Aren't you worried he's going to get kidnapped?"

I wish I had the presence of mind to say I am far more concerned about raising a fearful kid. Or that it's astonishing that a passerby sees an elderly neighbor talking to a toddler and immediately thinks "predator."

Instead I pointed out that I could see the Grape, since I was less than forty feet from his little person during the entire interaction. She heaved an indignant sigh and muttered something about "stranger danger," before stomping off.

We inhabit a densely populated neighborhood. I don't want the Grape debilitated by fear whenever he sees an unknown face.

Nor do I want him attempting to befriend every severely under-medicated schizophrenic patient he encounters.

What I want is for him to hone good instincts.

There's a landscaped circle in the park up the block. The rhododendrons are high; you can't see clear across. Almost every afternoon, the Grape rides his scooter around and around that circle, which means he's out of my field of vision for up to seven seconds at a time. He glows with pride as he exercises this tiny measure of independence. He revels in the surprised looks of pedestrians as he blows past without a parent sprinting inches from his flank.

A little pride is a beautiful thing in a small child.

I can't tell you how many times strangers have asked, "Aren't you afraid to let him out of your sight?"

Um, no. Because by the time they've spit out the question, I can see him again.

Honestly, on the scooter, the Grape poses a far greater threat to passersby than the passersby pose to him. He's speedy, but not especially adept at braking.

I'm not saying we don't encounter the occasional weirdo. Even then, the proper response shouldn't be blind panic.

A friend of mine devised a subtle hand signal for her kid to point out a creepy adult. When the kid gave the signal, my friend would eyeball the situation and confirm or deny creepiness.

Obviously this is neither a perfect nor foolproof character assessment system. But what fascinated me about it was that her four-year-old was usually spot on about when someone was off.

Kids are naturally attuned to weirdness, and they're wired to gravitate to the familiar. If some loner is skulking without a purpose, or staring for too long, or crowding someone's space, little kids pick up on it, even before they're able to articulate why.

Lenore Skenazy has made a career of urging free range childhood, and I like a lot of what she's selling, probably because it stirs nostalgia for long, unstructured summer days spent in the company of other kids.

By the time my childhood friends and I were mid- to late-elementary schoolers, we'd travel by bike to meet our friends, hit the beach or someone's finished basement, and not check in with mom for hours.

This was considered normal, not some crazy Euro-affected parenting by my immigrant parents. I  think, looking back, there was a general acceptance of the idea that kids should be free to be kids, and that we found safety in numbers. If we had a scuffle or disagreement among friends, the first default action was never to summon an adult mediator.

Kids had scheduled activities, like piano or soccer or whatever, but scheduled, supervised recreation didn't eat up every minute of leisure time. I can't remember ever doing homework or eating dinner in the car - something many of my friends with older kids confess to doing multiple times a week. This strikes me as both unpleasant and profoundly unhealthy.

We'd occasionally hop off the school bus at a friend's stop, and ask for forgiveness instead of permission. Back in the dark ages, the repercussions of such actions were limited to parent-child. If mom was peeved that I didn't get myself straight home, she'd deal with me.

These days I wouldn't be surprised if a mom in her shoes made a huge stink with the school. I could see a bus driver who let a child disembark at the wrong stop facing disciplinary action and ended up on the nightly news.

I don't buy that the world is more dangerous now than it was a generation ago, or that there's been a sudden population explosion among child predators. The 24/7 media cycle and more zealous prosecution of sex crimes have made us hyper aware of remote dangers that have always existed.


  1. Interesting!

    We live in a suburb of houston, in a wonderful little neighborhood where my two youngest daughters play outside for a couple hours everyday. Their Wii is gathering dust and nothing makes me happier. There are about eleven children their age that play in the middle of the street: softball, basketball, hopscotch, etc. Usually, I'm inside preparing dinner while they wander in and out. My MIL (when visiting) was horrified that I let them play outside alone. But there is always a rotation of parents keeping guard. And my kitchen window overlooks the street so I can see them at any time. I do feel like a bad mom when the MIL comes over and watches over my shoulder at what I am and am not doing. But in the end, I can't think of a better way for the kids to spend their afternoons than outside with the neighbors with whom they're going to grow and share milestones.

  2. @ Jennifer - That sounds like a wonderful neighborhood, and much like my own childhood experience.

    Please don't let anyone make you feel badly about trusting your instincts as a mom. Kids are so much healthier when they spend time outdoors. Not to mention that unsupervised play lets them grow more confident and imaginative. They think of fascinating games when a screen or hovering adult doesn't do the thinking for them. Put differently, constantly monitored kids don't learn how to think for themselves.

    A friend who has worked in the prison system and as a victim's advocate wrote me and pointed out that 93% of crimes against children are committed by family members or close friends. "Stranger danger" is thankfully rare and the panic WAY overblown,in my humble opinion.