Safe - or smothered? Should a child be allowed to ride the bus alone? Walk to school unescorted? How much freedom to allow is a parents' dilemma.

Posted: August 26, 2009

When Lamont Dixon was a scrappy kid growing up in Southwest Philadelphia, he and his buddies roamed the neighborhood until dark. Dixon walked - or sprinted, if it was cross-country season - 15 blocks to John Bartram High School. "Sometimes we'd go around the corner, hop on the No. 13 trolley" and head into Center City, he recalls. "It was our little adventure."

That was then. Now, Dixon is the 46-year-old father of two teenage daughters, living in a leafy suburb near Cherry Hill. His girls have never walked to school, though the family's home is a 10-minute walk from Assumption School in Atco, where Saharrah, 13, will be an eighth-grader in the fall. She and Symphony, 15, have never taken public transit without an adult. They're not allowed to attend sleepovers, except at the homes of relatives.

"They want to go to the movies by themselves, or to the mall with girlfriends. We're not for that, either," says Dixon. "I'm fearful of them hooking up with the wrong crowd, of introduction to drugs, of everything. The scariest fear is of abduction. [As a parent], you're torn between micro-supervising and thinking, 'But this is not how I grew up.' "

The line between kids' safety and their freedom is one that most parents tread privately: Is it OK for my 10-year-old to walk to the park? Can she stand at the bus stop alone? Should I let him run up to the corner store without me?

Recently, that private struggle spilled onto the national scene. Last year, New York writer Lenore Skenazy was dubbed "America's Worst Mom" after she published a column about letting her son, then 9, ride the subway alone. The column hit a nerve; soon Skenazy was making the rounds of morning-talk and cable-news shows, fending off accusations that she was a neglectful parent.

In her new book, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry, Skenazy argues that American parents have gone overboard with anxiety, swaddling kids instead of preparing them to deal with a world that is not actually as scary as they think.

"Free-Range Kids tries to promote a recognition of what the real dangers are. We can relax a little, allow our kids to go out and do things on their own, and our kids will grow a little," she says.

What are the real dangers? The answer depends on whom you ask and what you're measuring. Far fewer children die from unintentional injuries - car and bicycle accidents, drowning, fires - than was the case 20 years ago, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. U.S. Justice Department reports show that crime against children - along with violent crime in general - is down. And the scenario that gives parents the greatest terror - abduction and murder by a stranger - happened about 50 times in 1999 (the latest year for which there are Justice Department statistics). That's once for every 1.5 million kids.

"Overall, I think the notion that things have become more dangerous for many kids is really an illusion" fed by a handful of well-publicized, tragic cases, says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Heightened awareness of child safety may have boosted the reporting of crimes and prevented some kids from being victimized, Finkelhor says, but it also stokes fears of the rare, worst-case scenario.

Nancy McBride, national safety director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. - the agency behind the milk-carton photos of missing kids - agrees. "The dangers to children are far greater from somebody they or you know than from that faceless individual."

Nonetheless, parental nightmares are hard to shake, and the most cautious parents often set a neighborhood norm that others find difficult to flout, says David Anderegg, a psychologist in Lenox, Mass., and author of Worried All the Time: Rediscovering the Joy in Parenthood in an Age of Anxiety.

"You're made to feel like a really bad parent if you do anything that might smack of risk-taking. Sure, there's a risk in letting your child do stuff. But there's also a payoff - having them feel confident and self-reliant."

That's why Nadine Slavitt, 44, lets her oldest child, 13-year-old Sam, take the R5 train to the Philadelphia School in Center City. It's why she lets her daughters, 12-year-old Shoshana and 9-year-old Sydney, walk to their middle and elementary schools a few blocks from the family's Merion Station home.

"I know moms up and down this street walk with their kids. They see my little girl, and I'm sure they're all saying, 'Oooh, bad mom.' But the girls are fine. I think they need appropriate challenges at appropriate ages."

Like Skenazy, Slavitt equips her kids with real-world advice: Cross with the crossing guard. Don't go in cars with strangers. Despite the cautions, Slavitt feels nervous about leaving all three kids at home without a babysitter, something she and her husband have just begun to do.

"We hear about horrible things on TV. It's terrifying. It goes right to your gut. But you have to ask: Is this a legitimate risk, right now, right here? If you keep kids in a bubble, there's harm that's done as well."

Anderegg urges parents to talk to each other rather than making safety decisions in isolation. Alan Korn, executive director of Safe Kids USA, a Washington, D.C. agency that aims to reduce childhood injuries, says parents should insist on basic safety measures - bike helmets, seat belts, smoke alarms, supervision while swimming - and ease off about far less-likely risks, such as tainted Halloween candy.

And all the experts on child protection say it's important to consider your particular kids. Is he spacey when crossing streets? Is she willing to ask for help? Of course, assess your neighborhood and your own comfort zone.

That internal assessment is both a practical exercise and a spiritual one, says Rabbi Nancy FuchsKreimer, who teaches at Philadelphia's Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and is the author of Our Share of Night, Our Share of Morning: Parenting as a Spiritual Journey.

"We grow from hard times and hard things," says Fuchs-Kreimer. "The only real safety has to come in your kids' head; it has to travel with them wherever they go. In the end, I really believe that a lot of it has to do with trust and letting go."

Dianne Loufman thought she'd finally found the balance between protection and freedom with her third son, Bjrn. On a June Tuesday five years ago, when Bjrn was 3, she trotted after him while he roller-skated, afraid that he would fall. Later that day, Bjrn died after becoming entangled in a bush in the family's backyard in Mount Airy; a branch somehow closed off his airway, and he wasn't strong enough to push it away.

"It was a freak, stupid, unbelievable accident," says Loufman, a pastor who recently served as assistant to the Lutheran Church of Metropolitan New York. But it didn't make her question the autonomy she gives her older sons, 11-year-old Per and 13-year-old Kai. Both boys routinely ride the train from Mount Airy to Suburban Station, then walk to Masterman School at 16th and Spring Garden Streets. They're comfortable navigating both the Wissahickon woods and city streets.

"Kai's a really independent kid," says Loufman. And I've heard him tell Per, 'You can't walk like that, with your head down.' Kids have to learn to negotiate life."

Loufman has talked to her sons about recognizing and avoiding sexual abuse. She reminds them incessantly never to cross a street until all the cars have stopped. And she's proud of the self-reliance she and her husband, Erik Heen, have passed on.

"My husband grew up in South Dakota and biked across the state alone at 16. At 5 years old, I crossed big streets [in Troy, Ohio] and wandered the neighborhood. It's our responsibility as parents to work through the anxiety . . . and not limit our kids because of our own fears. My husband prays with Per every night that the joy and openness Bjrn had will be the way we live our lives."

Safety by Numbers

Parents often make decisions about how much supervision to give their children based on how dangerous they consider a situation. But sometimes the facts don't support the feelings.

Decrease in the number of deaths from unintentional injuries (car and bike accidents, drowning and fires) in children up to age 14, from 1987 to 2004:

43 percent.

Decrease in the number of sexual assaults on teenagers from 1993 to 2005: 52 percent.

Rate of serious violent crime (aggravated assault, rape, robbery, and homicide) among victims ages 12 to 17

In 1993: 44 per 1,000 youths.

In 2007: 10 per 1,000 youths.

Percentage of children walking or biking to school

In 1969: 50 percent.

In 2008: 15 percent.

Leading cause of death among children ages 1-14: unintentional injuries.

Second-leading cause of death among children ages 1-14: cancer.

Number of children in the United States in 2007:

73.9 million.

Number of U.S. children living in poverty in 2007: 13.3 million

Number of U.S. children without health insurance at any time in 2007:

8.1 million.

Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, Centers for Disease Control, Safe Routes to School National Partnership, Crimes Against Children Research Center, Safe Kids USA.

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