Strollerderby Salon: Etan Patz's 1979 Disappearance Changed Everything, But What Should We Do Now?

etan patz, free range parenting, take your kids to the park and leave them there, should kids play alone, stranger danger
Etan Patz's disappearance changed how we raise our children.

Doctors are currently assessing the mental state of Pedro Hernandez, the man who confessed to killing Etan Patz in 1979 when the boy was just 6 years old. Hernandez was arrested May 24th after a confession he gave to police. The Patz case was reopened in January 2010 by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who was asked by Etan’s father to “help the family get closure and bring to justice the person who kidnapped and murdered” his son, ABC News reports.

What was so disturbing to an entire generation about Etan Patz’s mysterious disappearance and subsequent murder is that he was victimized on his first solo walk to school, the resulting fear from that horrifying act reinforced last summer when 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky was kidnapped and brutally killed on his first walk alone. Our Danielle Sullivan noted last week that Kletzky’s Brooklyn neighborhood will soon be filled with security cameras, but is surveillance really the answer to preventing such horrible, but extremely rare crimes?

As our regular readers know, Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids rails against the fear that the deaths of kids like Etan and Leiby instill in us, and she encouraged parents earlier this month for the third year in a row to take their children to the park and leave them there to play unsupervised. Everyone here at Strollerderby has a slightly different opinion about whether or not our children should be allowed to play alone. Some of us are very much for our children experiencing the freedoms we did when we were young. Others of us are much more guarded, and some of us – like me – feel divided. Enjoy the conversation, and add your voice in the comments:

Joslyn Gray: Are you taking a pro or con stance on leaving your kids alone?

Madeline Holler: Pro pro pro pro pro propropropro.

Alie Martell, blog coordinator: Lenore’s holiday could also be called “Parenting in the 20th Century Day.” I was definitely at the park without my parents way more than I was there with them.

JG: I take the opposing view. Only because the playground nearest us is a known zone for drug-dealers.

Meredith Carroll: I was at the playground with my girls the other day and while the baby was in a swing, I was talking to another mom about how I don’t need to watch my 4-year-old anymore, because she is so good on the playground equipment. As the words came out of my mouth the 4-year-old stumbled on this ladder-climbing-thingy and was dangling by one hand until another mom and I got her down to safety. So, I’m sure you’re talking about leaving older kids alone on the playground, right?

Danielle Sullivan: Just came from the park with my 9-year-old and was watching a man who was there alone walking back and forth in the grass, looking around, he gave ME the creeps. No way in hell I’d drop my son off and leave him there alone in a NYC park.

Carolyn Castiglia: Danielle – you were raised in the city, yeah? Alie was, and says she was at the park alone. In the Ramona books (set in a small town, of course), the two sisters go to the park alone. I never went to the park alone, but I did walk to friends’ houses alone and we played in yards unsupervised. (A parent was home, but not “watching” us the whole time. They were in ear shot in case someone broke a bone, but that was about it.) I’m really interested in this topic because I do think we are caging our kids, and one mom I know says she thinks that’s why kids whine today, when we know for certain we did not talk in that tone or complain all the time. She thinks it’s a result of them not having enough freedom and feeling kind of pent up in their bodies. I think it’s a brilliant theory.

DS: Yep, born and raised in Brooklyn. I wasn’t allowed in the park alone until I was about 12, but I was allowed to go with friends if there was an older sibling in the group. I could go over to friends’ houses, play in their yards unsupervised, etc., and that’s basically what I’ve done with my own kids. Private yards are vastly different from public parks. My youngest can play on the block and I’ll keep an ear out for him. But to go to the park totally alone? Not happening for a couple more years.

Most moms I know take their kids to the park (7 blocks away) but it’s not like we’re sitting with them, playing with them every minute. As long as I can see where he is, what he’s doing, it’s fine. He and his friends don’t feel a loss of freedom – half of the time, they’ll hang right around us moms and talk, joke, play. It’s not like I get involved with his play. Moms are in parks meeting up with their own friends, exercising, writing, etc. and not being involved in their kids’ play except to be there if they need something and keep an eye on them. We were there both today and yesterday and he was riding his new bike along the bike path which is another thing to consider. His bike was stolen last year from our yard and bikes get stolen in the park regularly – sometimes an older kid will push a young kid down and steal his bike while he’s riding it. I’m not willing to send my son out on a brand new bike and even give half a chance that it might get stolen or he might cross the street haphazardly because he’s riding. Just not happening.

I did the same with my older daughters who also began venturing out on their own completely around age 12 or so. They’re both street smart, can get anywhere in the city alone now, know the trains, buses, etc. They are wholeheartedly self-sufficient and independent. What’s the rush to send kids out on their own? Just because someone says it’s the cool, popular thing to do and it’s making its way around the mommy blogs? I feel like this is the time to watch from afar how your kids behave, act, interact so that you know by the time they’re 12 or so, that they can handle themselves alone.

Also, the whole whiney thing I’m not feeling. Some kids whine, some don’t. And whining can be a result of anything, from the over-packed schedules so many are forced to endure to the crapload of work, homework, and state tests they now have – lots of reasons for pent up frustration for our kids these days!

AM: I suppose the caveat with me – and maybe it’s not one at all – is that I grew up in Queens, so while it was NYC proper, I grew up in a neighborhood with separate houses with yards and stuff, just with way busier streets and everything in walking distance – my elementary school was only 7 blocks away. But by 10 or so we were walking to and from school (always in a group, but without a parent), and playing at the playground before and after school. The thing is, it’s not like there were NO parents around if something went wrong, and we always played at the playground next to our school, where everyone knew us.

MC: I still haven’t gotten over that little boy who was kidnapped and murdered in Brooklyn last summer on the first day he asked his mom if he could walk home alone. His story might have been one in a million, but to be that one parent? I don’t think we damage our kids so much by being protective of them. It’s not like kids are being smothered if we sit on a bench in the park and watch them play.

MH: I disagree. I think just by being there we change how kids would behave. I actually think, like the whiny mom said, our presence makes them behave worse than if they were on their own. I love the idea of kids having to fend for themselves. Also, I think kids are much better at avoiding creepy strangers than we give them credit for. Aggressive child-murderers, well, that’s another thing but that’s cold calculation. But pervs at the park? As kids we knew to avoid at all costs.

DS: Totally agree, Meredith. Lenore asserts that there is no free play when the parents are around but that’s ridiculous. Our kids are off 20 to 50 feet away from us in the park and we’re not getting involved in how they play, what rules they make or how teams get picked. We’re just keeping them in our viewing distance which is, in fact EXACTLY how it was done back in old school Brooklyn in the late 70’s – early 80’s. Our moms would chat on the stoop while we kids played up and down the block. They knew nothing of what we were talking about or what rules we were making up! They were involved with each other just like us kids. I actually think Lenore’s argument/holiday is, well, just dumb.

CC: I dunno, I think Madeline’s on to something. I think we have helped to create and maintain a culture of fear that people like George W. Bush were happy to capitalize on. Because the thing is, these rare weird child murders that happened let’s say in the 70’s and 80’s that my generation is now reacting to as parents? It’s not like they happen any more or less now that we never let our kids have any freedom. Casey Anthony killed her own kid – and I bet if you looked at the statistics, most horror stories that happen to children are not at the hands of strangers.

MH: Skenazy even quotes stats saying stranger crime against kids is down, and, in fact, ALL violent crime is down in this generation.

Our conversation concluded there, but I kept thinking about it while I was at the park with my daughter last night. She’s only 6, so even Lenore Skenazy would say she’s too young to be anywhere alone, but as much as I do wish my daughter was growing up the same way I did – playing near the railroad tracks (hello!), playing in the woods, being able to walk a few blocks to meet other kids to play, all stuff I was doing alone by age 5 – I realized that there is an upside to all of this protective parenting in that my daughter and I actually spend time together, unlike my mother and I. When I take my daughter to the park, we go look at the birds, we walk and talk together, I even get on the equipment sometimes. (Can someone say fat thighs on a twisty slide?) I’m hoping that kind of togetherness makes my daughter feel secure so that when she’s old enough – and I’m not sure yet how old “old enough” is – she will be unafraid to tackle the world – or at least the playground – on her own.