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Is car culture robbing kids of independence?


This article about a Maryland family who is being harrassed by Child Protective Services because their children walked somewhere alone upset me for many reasons. You have to read the whole article because it gets more and more bizarre as the story progresses.

The children, ages 10 and 6, were brought home by police even though they told the officers they were not lost and had their parents’ permission. That’s dumb, but could be chalked up to poor judgment on the part of a couple of officers.

But then! The family had Child Protective Services follow-up, and not just to check in and find out that the kids were not being neglected. CPS forced the family to sign a document saying they wouldn’t leave their kids unsupervised, with the threat of removing the kids on the spot if the parents refused to sign. Then CPS interviewed the kids at their school without the parents’ consent. CPS’ involvement with the family is ongoing.

Another thing that blew my mind about this article is that the parents had gone through the trouble to make a laminated card for their kids to carry, reading, “I am not lost. I am a free-range kid.” If you are an adult now, think back to when you were 10 years old. Was walking in your neighborhood alone or with your younger sibling so unheard of that you needed to carry a laminated explaination with you?

So what has changed in the world that an activity that was quite normal just a generation ago could now be considered child neglect? I don’t know. But I know it’s not, as some people claim, that the world is more dangerous now than it was when I was a kid. America is safer now by so many measures.

I have to wonder if driving everywhere is what has changed our culture so drastically. Not that we didn’t have automobiles when I was a kid — I’m not that old. But I think more families had just one car. When I was a kid, the family car was parked outside my dad’s work all day. It was not available for my transportation needs most of the time. So if I wanted to get somewhere, I would naturally walk or ride my bike. Kids of course can’t drive alone, but they can walk or bike alone.

My best guess at why kids walking alone now cause some people concern — a worried neighbor tipped off the cops to the kids’ “dangerous” walk — is that kids walking simply became an unusual sight. You don’t question the safety of what you see people doing every day, you question the weird thing that you hadn’t seen before.

The mother in the article, in defending her and her husband’s parenting decisions, addressed a point that I also think about a lot as a mom: What dangers are realistic for us to worry about?

“Abductions are extremely rare. Car accidents are not. The number one cause of death for children of their age is a car accident.”

She’s right. 34,000 people died in car crashes in the United States in 2012. True kidnappings number in the hundreds annually. Cars are dangerous to children, whether the kids are in the car or crossing the street on foot. Yet because cars have this sacred status in our culture and economy, it’s not OK to acknowledge that.

Does this mean I think parents who drive with their kids in the car are bad parents? Quite the opposite. I’m saying, when you strap your kid into a car and get on the highway, you’re exposing your child to risk, just like I am when I send my kid to the store on her own. One parent in an online discussion of this issue said she was glad police picked up the kids in the story, becuase, “better safe than sorry.” But if “better safe than sorry” is truly your mantra, knowing what we know about auto deaths versus all other risks, shouldn’t police be pulling over every single car to warn us of the risk drivers are taking? Should social services be calling on parents who drive more than absolutely necessary with their kids in the car?

Of course there is danger in the world. It’s parents’ job to decide what legal risks we allow our kids to face.

P.S. This has nothing to do with cars, but while we’re on the topic of parenting and risk-taking, I recommend this amazing report on how a blind boy taught himself to “see” from the new radio show and podcast, Invisibilia.

Thanks to my friend Kori of Koritelling for sharing the outrageous story of the Maryland family.