Jessica Ridgeway abduction: Getting a grip on the parenting overreaction

Authorities search for the killer of 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway, while a soul searching mom in a nearby town tries not to overreact and take freedoms from her two children.

AP/Westminster Colorado Police Department
Jessica Ridgeway, 10, was abducted and killed last week. The case has parents examining their parenting style and just how much freedom they can allow their children to be outside alone.

Like many parents this past week, I’ve been following the news about Jessica Ridgeway – first with concern, and then with horror and sadness.

The tragic story about the 10-year-old girl, who was abducted while walking to school, and whose body was later discovered in a nearby park, hits particularly close to home: Jessica’s town of Westminster, Colo. is about a 20-minute drive from where I live with my two young kids.

Her story has been a regular topic on local listservs, and at the playground, and her fate is every parent’s worst nightmare. And I see that, right now, as my challenge as a parent: not to let it so overtake my fears that it fundamentally changes the parent that I want to be. How can I be prudent without being fearful? How can I allow my children what I believe are necessary freedoms and opportunities to be independent, while still not being naïve.

My kids – three and five years old – are younger than Jessica and still not old enough to walk to school or the park by themselves, though I have been giving them increased freedom to play by themselves in our immediate, quiet neighborhood.

But in the past week, I’ve heard – and read – from a lot of parents of older children that Jessica’s fate is changing what they allow their children to do. Yesterday, a neighbor whose kids regularly roam the blocks around my house on their bikes and scooters told me she’s no longer allowing her nine-year-old to leave the house without her.

Some of this makes sense. For parents in this area, they know that a predator is still at large, so the threat feels particularly real. And our natural instincts after reading about a tragedy – even if it’s across the country – are to hold our children closer and to maybe hover a bit more than we might have in the past.

But in general, I believe what our children need from us is more freedom, not less. And I hope that as my children get older, I’ll be able to keep my own fears in check to allow them those freedoms.

When I read Lenore Skenazy’s book “Free Range Kids” several years ago, it struck a chord with me: This was the kind of parent I wanted to be. She articulated many of the feelings that I already had, that we were putting our children – from infants through teenagers – in a bubble, to their detriment.

It’s easy to say, from a distance, that the world is as safe (or safer) as it has ever been, that it is only incessant media coverage of abductions and tragedies that make it feel so much more dangerous. One report from the Department of Justice puts the number of “stereotypical kidnappings” by a stranger at 115 this year, with about 40 percent ending in death. But it becomes harder when a tragedy like Jessica’s puts a face on that danger, especially one so nearby. Clearly, to Jessica’s family and friends, she is more than just a statistic.

I understand, and sympathize with, the Denver parent who blogged this week that “it will be a while before I regroup and let my kids walk alone to the park…even with a cell phone.”

And I know many parents who acknowledge that the statistics show that the actual risk of an abduction like this happening is minimal, but believe it’s better to be safe than sorry, and couldn’t imagine allowing a nine- or 10-year-old child – or even older – to walk or bike to school on his or her own.

So why do it? Or why allow my children to go to the park, or walk to a friend’s house, without me, when I think they’ve demonstrated the maturity and ability to do so, even if it means accepting a (tiny) risk?

Because I think the far greater risk is not allowing the skills that they need to be self-sufficient, or the joy and accomplishment that comes from such independence. And it is teaching them that the world is a dangerous place, where fear should govern their actions.

I’m not going to stop driving because of the risk of a car accident, and I’m not going to teach my children not to climb trees or sled down hills or swim in the ocean because they might have an accident. Yes, the fear of a stranger abduction is much more visceral than any of the myriad other ways our children could get hurt, but I believe tamping down on their independence could be just as harmful as curtailing the natural childhood play we all expect.

Which isn’t to say I want to be reckless. Jessica’s murder has made me think more thoroughly about what I want to teach my children so that they can be prudent, without being paranoid: to be wary of any adult asking them for help, for instance, what to do if a strange adult ever asks them to get in a car or go someplace with him, and how to turn to other strangers for help if they’re scared, and how to trust their instincts.

And I don’t judge any parents who decide to rein in their child’s freedoms a little more in the wake of a tragedy so extreme.

But as I’ve watched the news this past week, the challenge I’ve given for myself is to keep the actual danger in perspective, and not let fear overtake joy in my parenting.

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