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Helicopter Parents or Free-Range Kids: How protective should we be?

When I was a kid in a suburb of Albany, New York in the late sixties, our mothers turned us outside to play in the neighborhood all day in the summer and called us home for dinner at dusk by leaning out the front door and bellowing our names. Games we played included “Murder” – an elaborate theater bringing together kids of all ages and involving a killer, a victim and a detective – and “Boston Strangler” (we took turns playing the nefarious doorbell ringer and the poor souls who opened the door to him). Where we were from the time we left until the time we sat down to eat was of little import to our mothers; they knew we were probably at Dougy’s or Maureen’s or Meg’s house or speeding between on our bicycles, and that was good enough.

My daughter, Olivia, is two and a half now and very outgoing; she believes everyone she meets will soon be her new best friend. She rides down the supermarket aisle in the cart, waving and calling out to everyone who passes by. Well-meaning neighbors sometimes tell me that I’m going to have to train her soon to be less trusting of people. Will I really, I wonder? Do I need to train her to be less open, to be more timid and fearful of strangers?

As a parent, certainly part of my responsibility is to introduce the world to her. At least during these early years, I have the luxury of focusing on its wonders, not its terrors. I take her to wander through underground caves, to listen to the mournful and yet catchy strains of solo klezmer clarinet live at the public library, and to help me feed carrots through a fence to a one-ton animal with three-foot horns. Placing wonders before her seems to work for now, when she is still small enough that independence is mostly a matter of deciding which shirt to allow me to put on her. Now she is always with family or with her (carefully vetted) daycare, so this is almost an academic question. But it’s a good time to begin to think about where do I draw the lines – I want her to be confident and unafraid, but also properly cautious. Eventually she will begin to spend some time on her own, and this will become a real concern.

The director of the New York Branch of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Ed Suk, tells me that, surprisingly, incidents of abduction of children by strangers or near-strangers have not actually increased over the last 40 years. What is different, he says, is the media coverage of these cases. Today, as then, there are only about 125 in the entire country each year.

I suppose it’s true – in 1970 we had no Nancy Grace, no America’s Most Wanted. Faces looked out from milk cartons starting a few years later, but these didn’t offer many wrenching details of the victims’ lives and mothers’ anguish for parents around the country to worry over like so many rosary beads. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that there may not actually be more cases occurring today.

Olivia runs down the aisle of Home Depot laughing and chortling, then runs out of view, and I have a moment of panic till I find her in the next aisle a few seconds later. Out walking my dogs one day I see a neighborhood girl, eight years old, looking as contented as can be in her helmet, pedaling down her street; at the corner she turns back around and pedals the other way. She keeps on riding back and forth, like a dog contained within an invisible fence.

Her mother confirms to me that Taylor’s not allowed to go off the street. It’s not just about strangers, she says; it’s also the young guys who come racing through the neighborhood at high speeds. Yet, strangely, Taylor’s face expresses all the same happiness – even freedom – that I felt as a girl when I raced down one street after another, practicing holding on with just one hand or no hands.

Her mom is right: it’s not all about stranger danger. The web site of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells me that accidental injury – in particular, drowning and car accidents – is actually the number one killer of kids ages 1-14.

Then, of course, Suk reminds me that the bogeyman can be at home all along. One in five girls and one in 10 boys, he says, will be sexually victimized by the time they reach age 18, and the greatest risk is from family members and others who are part of the fabric of their daily lives.

Walking through a parking lot, Olivia wants to “walk on my own feet” but refuses to hold my hand. So I carry her and explain that in a parking lot you need to look around in all directions all the time and listen closely. Perils can come suddenly, from any direction. Parenting is like that. Olivia has survived the years of greatest risk for SIDS only to grow big enough now to climb up onto the bathroom counter, where, according to an article I read recently, even the toothpaste can kill her.

Meanwhile, I do what I can. I make a game of helping her learn her full name, as well as my name and her daddy’s name. Pretty soon we can start on our address and telephone number.

And I look for things that can inspire wonder while also making life a little safer for her, like the swimming classes she’s been taking at the Y since she was six months old. While of course she still needs close supervision, I like the idea of her learning to trust her body to the water and be buoyant.

She is so happy when, for a few seconds, I take off her swim belt and she paddles furiously to stay afloat all on her own.

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