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Are You Your Child’s Keeper?

Elisheva Appel

When is independence healthy — and when does it become risky? When is protectiveness “good parenting” and when is it stifling? Parents and experts weigh in

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

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PROBABILITY FACTOR “People like to say, ‘Better safe than sorry,’” says Skenazy, “as if there are only two options.” In fact, safety is relative. Every action, including driving to the store, is fraught with some level of risk, however miniscule; even staying home under the covers can be fatal, when you consider that people die in fires or are buried by avalanches. Are these all equally probable? Not unless you are reading this article in a Chabad house on the slopes of the Himalayas

I n Japan, seven-year-olds ride subways to school, switching trains at the world’s busiest station. In Denmark, babies nap in strollers outside restaurants while parents dine. In America, leaving your four-year-old in a car for five minutes on a cool day can get you arrested.

With crime rates near historic lows, and child-pedestrian injuries decreasing, America is safer for kids than ever before. Yet more parents are bearing down on their kids in an effort to guard them from any possible harm. In a style termed “helicopter parenting,” upper and middle class American parents hover over their children, determined to protect them from dangers surely lurking behind every suburban bush and SUV.

One study showed that the numbers of children allowed to walk to school by themselves dropped from 43 percent in the 1960s to just 13 percent in the 21st century. Of parents who drove their 10- to 14-year-olds to school, half admitted they wouldn’t feel comfortable letting their kids walk unsupervised. Many cited fear of strangers as their overriding concern.

More recently, a spate of attention-grabbing stories about harsh consequences for “negligent” parents has upped the ante. In Maryland, when a ten- and six-year-old were allowed to walk home from a park alone, police detained them and called Child Protective Services. In Florida, parents were arrested when their 11-year-old, accidentally locked out of the house, was spotted shooting hoops in the yard. Then there was a 17-day jail sentence for a South Carolina mother who let her nine-year-old daughter play alone in a park near the mother’s workplace. According to a 2014 survey, 68 percent of American parents would be happy to see laws punishing parents who allow children under age ten to play alone in a park, and 43 percent felt that even age twelve was too young to be unsupervised.

Why has parental hypervigilance replaced the unsupervised play and independent exploration that were once commonplace? In the early 1980s, several high-profile child abductions captured the runaway imaginations of a generation of parents. The anniversary of the disappearance of adorable, six-year-old, Jewish Etan Patz near his home in Manhattan became National Missing Children’s Day, and he became the first child to appear on a milk carton, in silent reproach and warning, on breakfast tables nationwide.

Simultaneously, a rash of personal injury lawsuits relating to playground equipment prompted the US Consumer Product Safety Commission to publish the Handbook for Public Playground Safety in 1981. Since then, it’s been a headlong race to the gilded cage, as Americans attempt to protect children from every possible whiff of danger.

Not everyone agrees that abductions, lethal injuries, and other dire outcomes proliferate when parents remove their eyes from their offspring. “People call things ‘extremely dangerous’ even when they’re statistically so rare,” says Lenore Skenazy, a journalist who bears the dubious distinction of having been dubbed “America’s Worst Mom.” Back in 2009, Skenazy found herself at the center of a media firestorm when she wrote a column about allowing her then-nine-year-old son to find his way home on the New York City subway. Accused of reckless child endangerment, Skenazy fought back, coining the term “free-range kids” to describe the type of independent, resilient child she hoped to raise. (Besides her extensive journalism, her campaigns include her hilarious keynote speeches on topics like “Play Dates and Axe-Murderers: How to Tell the Difference.”) Today, free-range parents challenge the assumptions of local governments and child protection agencies, fighting for parents’ rights to raise children as they see fit — the way parents have done for generations.

Free-Range and Frum? 

As with most issues, Jews stake out a wide range of positions on both sides of this controversy. Rachael Rovner, mom of four in Memphis, says her neighbors are surprised to find her ten- and eight-year-old playing in the park without an adult. Adina of Flatbush can’t imagine letting her seven-year-old play alone on her front lawn anytime in the foreseeable future.

In more homogenous, densely populated Jewish centers, the picture tends to be very different. In Boro Park, a six-year-old can jump rope with her four-year-old sister with nary a parent in sight. In parts of Lakewood, a five-year-old might walk himself to the playground around the corner. And in Jerusalem or Kiryat Sefer, a seven-year-old might be responsible for two younger siblings on a trip to the makolet for pitas. Many Israeli neighborhoods even boast lost-children gemachs, which care for wandering tots until their worried parents come looking for them.

Parents coming from major Jewish hubs tend to be more relaxed about letting children out from under their watchful gaze, observes Daniella from Cleveland. “In more dense, insular communities, you have fewer strangers and weird people floating past,” she says. She feels the need to be more cautious in her diverse (though largely frum) neighborhood than she would in Boro Park or New Square. Boston kollel wife Chana agrees that “out-of-town” people are more cautious. Kids don’t walk alone to school until fifth or sixth grade, and you never see little kids out by themselves — except in the most densely populated frum areas, where the New York Tristate expatriates bring their habits with them. “Lakewood people do what they did in Lakewood,” says the former Lakewood resident.

 

In Israel, the relaxed attitude is even more pronounced, and is influenced by additional factors. “Israeli culture is much more youth-oriented,” explains Professor Asher Ben-Arieh, who holds Hebrew University’s Haruv Chair for the Study of Child Maltreatment. Contrast American Boy Scout leaders — all adults — with the adolescent madrichim leading Israeli youth groups. According to Ben-Arieh, this distinction is true across all socioeconomic and religious divides: Israel empowers youth. The effect is especially pronounced in lower income brackets, where families tend to be large, apartments small, and parents less available to micromanage each child.

Standing on Their Own Feet 

When she allows her kids liberties that are unusual in her circles, Rachael Rovner raises a few eyebrows. But she doesn’t care, because she appreciates how critical independence and responsibility are for children. “As a preschool teacher, I get to observe many parenting techniques and see what really works. Children need the ability to problem-solve, think for themselves, and fail without being destroyed,” she explains.

They don’t get to learn all that if parents constantly shield them from the consequences of their choices and mediate their squabbles. Rachael consciously teaches her kids the skills they need for independence, and expects them to take responsibility for practicing everything they’ve mastered. Rachael knew her approach was getting through when her daughter pointed out, with preteen prescience, “If you keep raising us like this, we might not live next door to you.”

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