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Free-range kids: Where do the boundaries start?

Kari Anne Roy had a concerned parent show up on her doorstep with her 6-year-old son, then a police officer, then Child Protective Services. Overkill or justified? One mom offers a counterpoint to parents who let young kids outside alone.

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Children's book author  and mom of three, Kari Anne Roy of Austin, Texas is up-in-arms after police and Child Protective Services were called-in because her 6-year-old was left playing alone at a park bench near her home without any supervision for what she says was approximately 10 minutes.

This latest incident has re-lit the short fuse on parents engaged in the debate over “free-range" kids vs. “helicopter parenting.”

I’m not a fan of extreme parenting in any form, but I am into what I might call “reporter parenting” which involves wanting my kids to be independent while recognizing that the days of 1950s idyllic safety are largely gone.

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For the past 26 years I’ve worked as a journalist for The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and later as a columnist turned blogger and through it all I have had to pass on the news of missing, exploited, maimed, and murdered children of all ages from every possible venue and neighborhood.

Because of this, most people I meet fully expect me to have my kids on total lock-down. However, I was a latch-key, “free-range” kid from the age of eight. So I allow my four sons a good deal of freedom, which begins in our family at age 10.

Those freedoms include biking to and from school in daylight and when a crossing guard is on duty and walking to the local convenience store three blocks away for an occasional allowance spending spree.

At first, I began the boys freedom at age 8, until I realized that even teenagers are often incapable of making consistently good, safe decisions and upped the bar.

I bumped the age up from 8 to 10 after one of my boys turned 9 and I got a call from a neighbor a few blocks away who had spotted my son in his underwear and a dog collar barking outside a friend’s home after losing a round of “Truth of Dare.”

Ms. Roy wrote about her experience in her blog HaikuMama last week.

She wrote that she was consumed with the task of sorting through piles of mail after a long vacation and left her children, ages 8 and 6 to play at a nearby park bench while she remained indoors.

Her daughter, age 8, came home while her younger child, Isaac, remained at the park bench, which she describes as “up the street” from her home.

A neighbor lady brought Isaac home and apparently went the extra step of calling police. Whether the woman phoned police before or after locating Roy isn’t made clear in the blog.

Roy writes in her post about her encounter with the neighbor, “I didn't want to talk about how he's the youngest of three, has been under constant surveillance since he was born, has rules and perimeters for playing outside, and had been outdoors a total of 15 minutes that morning,”

Then, Child Protective Service and Austin Police were at Roy’s door a short while later grilling her about her parenting, which it seems both terrified and incensed her.

As the mom of four boys, I feel her frustration and anger at having this heart-stopping event happen to her.

However, I went online to check the crime statistics at City-Data.com for Austin as compared to my neighborhood in Norfolk, Va.

I found the two cities are nearly identical, with Austin’s crime score at 364 and Norfolk at 389 which puts both our cities in the “average” crime rating which falls between 200-449. 

The lowest rating for “Very Low Crime” – which I suppose is Mayberry with Sheriff Andy at the helm – is 50. A “Very High” rating is 1,000 which I might guess is likely East St. Louis, where the likelihood of being a victim of crime is 1 in 10, according to the website NeighborhoodScout.com.

According to the City-Data web site, annual crimes listed for Austin and Norfolk included thefts (the highest number of crimes by far) and assaults, as well as documentation of registered sex-offenders living in those areas (around 1,405 registered in Austin, with Norfolk not that much different).

Of course, when it comes to both cities, some neighborhoods are much safer than others. I find that understanding the local crime rates, and where they fall on a spectrum is important for parents. While we can’t let fear of crime be the only basis of our decision how closely to watch our children, understanding crime, and its proximity to your own street, should be a consideration.

While I disagree with Roy’s neighbor going to the extreme of calling the police instead of only talking to her directly, it also tells me that Roy might be in a place where she doesn’t know her immediate neighbors.

Roys’s post indicates that she doesn’t know this neighbor because she writes that the woman came to her door with Isaac in tow and asked, “Is that your son?”

About four years ago, when my youngest son, Quin, was 6, I had a police officer come to my door, unbidden by any neighbor, because he spotted Quin on my front lawn alone.

The front door was open and I was in the kitchen grabbing a fresh cup of coffee with the intent of coming back out to be with my son.

My heart stopped when the officer, holding Quin, asked sternly, “Is this your son?”

The officer cautioned me not to leave a child under 8 unwatched outdoors.

The shock of seeing the officer – a strange man – holding my child was so bad that it triggered some ferocious Tiger Mama instinct that left me shaking with rage at the man for everything from questioning my parenting to holding my child.

Then the officer handed Quin to me and apologized for giving me such a scare.

However, he said he was part of a public safety effort to educate people that being in a “good neighborhood” often means being the prime target for crime. “A young child alone is a target of opportunity,” the officer said. “Nobody wants to think about it. It’s a scary thought.”

That’s why when I read Roy’s blog, I wanted to reach out in my own way to tell parents that it may not be enough to say that a child “can be seen” from your home. Based on my own experience, I think parents need to be able to say, “I was looking at my child.”

If someone surprises you at your door with your child in tow, you might want to think about what would have happened if it weren’t a busybody neighbor, or police officer, but a criminal who took your child by the hand that day.

If your neighbor didn’t know your child, then your child took the hand of a stranger without protest.

While it can be very hard to hear the concerns of a neighbor without reading into them and feeling criticized, those who come directly to you – especially without police involvement – should be regarded with compassion.

Roy’s piece spurs the debate among parents about finding a balance in how we monitor our children. It’s a discussion that by its very nature is a minefield, but one important enough for us to learn to navigate – not as adversaries, but as parents who are all just interested in doing the best we can for our children.

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