The New York Times writes today about when children are old enough to walk to school unattended. Note that this article appears in FASHION AND STYLE! As if it was only of interest to women. That's an important clue to the society we live in.
So when can a child walk alone to school? The current cultural answer seems to be somewhere around the age of twenty-one. The beginning sets the tone:
TO get to school, the child leaves home by herself, proudly walking down the boulevard in a suburb of a small city in upstate New York. The crossing guard helps her at the intersection. She lives only a block and a half from school. Yet she walks by older children waiting with parents for buses to the same school.
She is 7, a second-grader, and her mother, Katie, hears the raised-eyebrow remarks: " 'Are you sure you want to be doing this?' " Katie said friends ask.
" 'She's just so pretty. She's just so ... blond.' A friend said, 'I heard that Jaycee Dugard story and I thought of your daughter.' And they say, 'I'd never do that with my kid: I wouldn't trust my kid with the street,' " said Katie, a stay-at-home mother, who asked that her full identity be withheld to protect her children.
There it is, in a nutshell. The pederasts and sickos are all out there, waiting for your child to be kidnapped and possibly murdered. There's nothing worse for a parent to think about, and the media certainly fans the flames of those fears. Every tragic event is in the news 24/7, and not only in the informative sense but in the emotional sense of what-if-it-happened-to-you? So we are pre-prepared to worry about child abductions, and as the article points out, the societal disapproval of parents who don't act according to that norm is enormous. At least in the affluent areas where one parent is able to chauffeur the children all day long (guess which one it usually is).
But here's the paradox: Pederasts and sickos are not that common and defending children against that possible danger by driving them everywhere might actually endanger them more:
The fear of abduction by strangers "has become a norm within middle-class parental circles," said Paula S. Fass, a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of "Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America." "We try to control our fears to the nth degree, so we drop our children off right at school. It's a confirmation that 'I'm a good parent.' "
In 1969, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school; by 2001, only 13 percent still did, according to data from the National Household Travel Survey. In many low-income neighborhoods, children have no choice but to walk. During the same period, children either being driven or driving themselves to school rose to 55 percent from 20 percent. Experts say the transition has not only contributed to the rise in pollution, traffic congestion and childhood obesity, but has also hampered children's ability to navigate the world.
Critics say fears that children will be abducted by strangers are at a level unjustified by reality. About 115 children are kidnapped by strangers each year, according to federal statistics; 250,000 are injured in auto accidents.
I don't think anyone decided that it would be time for American parents to start reallyreally fearing strangers abducting their children, but that's how the way those cases are treated works out. The coverage is emotional, forcing the viewers all the time to experience this most horrible of events as something that might very well happen in their own families. But note that the danger can be avoided! And the emotional relief when you realize that! Just shepherd your children 24/7 until they can vote.
It is this type of hyper-parenting that has become the upper-middle-class norm. When you add to it the more and more common arguments for homeschooling you get something that a feminist blogger must address: We are making 'ideal' parenting (well, mothering, obviously) into a job that doesn't even fit within a 24-hour day. Nobody doing all that has time for anything else, and if that's what you are planning to do for twenty years or so, why go to college or graduate school?
Note that I'm not blaming any individual parents. The society tells us that good parents drive their children everywhere. If you don't, you are a bad parent. And all that emotional priming makes it tremendously hard to let your child go anywhere on her own. If something happened you couldn't live with yourself. Besides, there are badly-behaving cars everywhere and nary a sidewalk in sight and many of us live in areas where we don't know the neighbors that well, if at all.
But take a step back to see the wider society. What is it doing to make parenting easier? That, after all, is how you make a more child-friendly world.
What I mostly see is the idea that it's the individual parents (read: mothers) who are responsible for everything, not the society. Let's not have good sidewalks or bike paths. Let's cut back on school buses to save money. Why not just let the school system collapse? Moms can always home-school, and that way everybody else saves lots of money.
People differ in how they wish to bring up their children. But what I don't like about all this is the societal pressure brought upon any parent who cannot take on the hyper-vigilant role:
Last spring, her son, 10, announced he wanted to walk to soccer practice rather than be driven, a distance of about a mile. Several people who saw the boy walking alone called 911. A police officer stopped him, drove him the rest of the way and then reprimanded Mrs. Pierce. According to local news reports, the officer told Mrs. Pierce that if anything untoward had happened to the boy, she could have been charged with child endangerment. Many felt the officer acted appropriately and that Mrs. Pierce had put her child at risk.
There you go. The police officer saw Mrs. Pierce as the guilty party. I wonder why that officer isn't keeping the streets safe so that children can walk to soccer practice.