because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Has "Stranger Danger" Gone Too Far?

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photo from Mr. T in DC @ flickr.com

I was in the epicenter of suburbia, standing in a Target store, holding up two bathing suits, and feeling a little indecisive. A little blond-haired girl who couldn’t have been more than 3-years old stood in her bright orange cart while her mother, standing one arm’s length away, sifted furiously through a rack of summer shorts.

“I like the pink one with the flowers,” the girl offered, unsolicited. “It’s pretty.”

“I like that one, too . . .” I said. “But I think I’m going to get the black one.”

Suddenly, the little girl’s mother swooped in, a deranged lioness.

"pink car" by hfb @flickr.com

“We don’t talk to strangers!” the little girl’s mother shouted loud enough for not only her daughter to hear but for everyone in the entire department to hear as well. Clearly, the message was more for me than for anyone else. But instead of smiling politely and wheeling her daughter away to speak with her privately, she made a big ole scene by shouting and pushing the cart (and her little girl) far, far away from (dangerous) me.

Heaven forbid, her daughter and I might have got to talking about shoes.

Okay, I get that there is this weird, American fear about strangers. I don’t seem to have that fear, but I know a lot of people do. That said, 99.99% of the world is composed of strangers, so I have always been of the mindset that one of my many jobs as a mother would include teaching my child about how to respond appropriately to strangers because – let’s face it – sometimes, a person needs to rely on other people. Sometimes even people we don’t know. In her book Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, author Lenore Skenazy points out that Americans watch a lot of  television, and the news is always going on about some child being raped, abducted, or snatched. We hear about how “…this kid went into the bathroom and some guy killed him, and [we] become very scared someone is on the prowl for [our] children” (87). This kind of thinking is crazy-making.

At age 10, my son doesn’t have a cell phone. He can’t call me or text me for immediate rescue. So if, for example, we happen to get separated at the grocery store and he really can’t find me after searching the aisles for a few minutes, he has learned to go to Customer Service – to calmly state that his mother has gotten lost (ha!) and ask for me to be paged. Or, if we are at an outdoor venue, I have taught him to find a mother with children and ask her – this stranger – if she might use her cell phone to call me because we have become separated. He knows not to get into a car with someone he doesn’t know. He knows not accept anything from anyone offering him candy or kittens or balloons or free iPods. He knows not to go anywhere with a stranger asking for help, but instead to reassure that person he is heading home and that he will send help back as soon as he can. He’s known these things since he was small, and he’s actually had to put some of these things into practice.

I guess I’d rather have my kid feel he can trust other human beings. After all, at some point, he will need to know how to interact with people he doesn’t know, why not start early? I also think I have enough faith in humanity to believe that most people are not out to abduct or molest or kill my child.

And really, what did the mother in Target succeed in teaching her daughter by sweeping her away from me so violently? That people are terrifying. That no one can be trusted. That the world is a scary place, and that her daughter is utterly ill-equipped to function in it. She taught her daughter not to speak. That even casual conversation is dangerous. That mother didn’t teach her daughter a thing about safety. She taught her daughter about fear. As far as I’m concerned, she also taught her daughter a big lesson in how to be downright rude to other people.

What could be right about that?

Can You Leave Your Kids Alone?

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Muppet Feet by irreverentwidow @ flickr.com

My mother left me alone in our house when I was in 4th grade. She would sometimes make a quick run to the grocery store and I would watch (torture?) my younger brother for about an hour before she came back home with the goods. By 6th grade, I was making pretty good money as a regular babysitter to several neighborhood families. (When I say “good money,” I mean I was making $1/hour to watch up to 3 children – and sometimes even a dog with a bladder problem.) I would typically arrive at 6 pm, make the kids dinner, entertain them, feed the dog, help them get into pajamas and brush their teeth, get everyone into bed and have them sound asleep by the time the parents came home around 11 pm or so! Pretty responsible for an 11-12 year old, right?

Last year, my husband and I started leaving our (then) 9-year old son alone in the house for little chunks of time. We didn’t leave him for very long. Maybe hubby and I wanted to take a walk around the block after dinner or stop and chat with some neighbors. That kind of thing.

Since things went so well, we gave our li’l monkey greater independence this year. Sometimes he comes home from school, and I’m not home. He knows how to get in, how to make his own snack, knows to get his homework done. He might (or might not) practice his piano. He knows not to let strangers in the house. He knows what to say if someone calls on the phone. I’ve been feeling mighty good about m’boy who has morphed into a pretty confident and competent little person.

That said, I’ve been catching a little grief from people who seem to think that age 10 is simply too young to leave a person “unattended” for any length of time.

Most people have heard of Lenore Skenazy. The author of Free Range Kids, she’s the chick who let her 9-year old son Izzy ride the train from Bloomingdales in the middle of Manhattan to their home in Queens without a cell phone (and she wasn’t even secretly following him or anything. She simply believed he could do it.) Was Izzy too young to take the Subway? Hell, he did it!

I’m not even putting my kid on a train or a bus! He’s happy to have a bit of time alone in the house. And I’m seriously wondering, what could happen to my kid in our home? Why is everyone so worried about him? About me? About my parenting skills? After all, my mother trusted me to stay at home and watch my 6-year old brother when I was 9 years old. Think about the first time you stayed home alone? How old were you? Chances are, if you are over 40, you were about the same age.

So I’m curious: When is it okay for a child to stay home alone for the first time? And would you hire a 6th grade babysitter these days?