On Their Own

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    They had a plan. My oldest daughter, Sam, who was just shy of twelve at the time, and a neighborhood buddy wanted to go on an adventure, a mile-long walk to the ice cream shop that had just opened down the street.

    These two had had relative autonomy in the neighborhood for a year or so, but they were ready for the next step. It was time to break the surly bonds of the subdivision, and besides – ice cream!

    Yes, ice cream in the middle of the day, I said, if you walk there and pay for it yourself.

    A call to the mother of the friend for pre-approval was in order, which is when things got a little more complicated. To give you an inkling of how much circumstances have changed in the past seven years, not only was I surprised to find out that this friend owned a cell phone, but it worried me when her mom suggested taking it along on the adventure “just in case.”

    Hmmm. Just in case.

    I remember pondering that phrase and ticking through a list of things that could possibly go wrong. I pictured Sam’s taller, stronger friend fiddling with her phone to call for help while the man driving the van of doom picked up my petite daughter, tossed her in the back, and sped away. Then there was the teen texter at the mall I had seen plow over a toddler recently, a tiny victim of what has since become known as distracted walking. Would my daughter and her friend be more concerned with the cell phone than they were with safely navigating the sidewalks of a busy secondary road?

    It occurred to me then that given my family’s existence in the burbs, it would be up to me to actively seek out opportunities for my kids to experience the kind of independence I had known in my formative years. My experience as a kid, of course, was very different. Here’s where I talk about how I grew up in a small town on the banks of the Ohio River, playing on the railroad tracks with my brother. How I left the house in the morning to run around with friends, and came home in time for dinner. How my parents had no idea what I was up to or where I was as the day passed. They just knew I would come home tired. It was the kind of childhood many of us had, when the notion of free-range parenting wasn’t controversial, it was just what parents did.

    But as today’s debate rages – free-range versus helicopter versus drone parenting (Google it!) – one thing is certain: Almost nothing is like it was when we were kids. The truth is, the majority of kids don’t spend their days in creative exploration of their environment. In fact, most of us parents are pretty lucky if our kids even want to walk to an ice cream shop. Yet, we worry, even when they’re fifty feet away from us on playground equipment or scrolling Instagram in the next room.

    The thing is, as I was reading this month’s feature about missing children on page 24, I discovered that the majority of us don’t have much to worry about. But even as the chances of recovering a child in the event of an abduction have increased dramatically, our collective parenting fears of that unlikely event occurring in the first place have heightened exponentially. Thanks for that, Internet and cable news.

    Ultimately, as you’ll soon read, the best strategy is to prepare our children for the unthinkable without filling them with irrational fear or smothering them with parental protections. While we all want to raise decent and respectable children, it’s equally important to instill in them the kind of grit that’s necessary for them to say no to an adult, mean it, and trust their gut to kick and scream, or run away in a compromising situation.

    So I guess, besides being worried about the distracted walking that day, this was what bothered me most about the girls having a cell phone on their walk to get ice cream. The false sense of security the phone provided would be absolutely no help. Although in hindsight, I suppose I could have told them to throw it at someone.

    You know, just in case.

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    Karen Schwartzkopf
    Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family: husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director, and their daughters—Sam, Robin, and Lindsey. You can read Karen’s take on parenting in the Editor’s Voice.