In The Kitchen, Talking About Etan, As The Kids Play Outside

Hi Readers — Just got this letter from “Steph in Minneapolis.” Loved it. You will, too.  – L. 

Dear Free-Range Kids: On Saturday afternoon, the neighbor kids rang the bell and off ran our almost 8-year-old daughter to wander the block, chalking sidewalks and digging worms.  Then we stood in the kitchen and talked about Etan Patz.  The unthinkable happened, for that family lightening did strike and as parents we can’t imagine their pain.

For us though, the solution is not tying our daughter to our apron strings.  It is teaching her to listen to her gut and giving her permission to take any course of action that makes her feel safe.  She asked me once, what if an adult makes me feel uncomfortable and I kick them and run away but it wasn’t the right thing?  I said, taking care of a problem like that is a mom job. You just do what you think is right at the time.  Being confident and empowered is not a guarantee that she will be safe, but on some level you have to count on lightening not striking or you’d never leave your house.

We live on a busy city street with lots of car traffic in a working class urban neighborhood.  There is a lot to look out for, and it means that our daughter’s range is smaller than ours was at her age, but she does spend most of her weekend out of our sight and I am glad for that.  It’s called having a childhood.

After our talk in the kitchen on Saturday, I admit it, I peeked outside to see where DD was, and I called her to come home immediately. Why?

The kids were riding bikes without helmets and I made her come home for hers. The risk of a head injury from biking, while still tiny, is much larger than the risk of being abducted off the street.

Of course, she rolled her eyes at me and declared that I am “overprotective.”  :-). Then she went out to ride some more, and I let her. — Steff

23 Responses

  1. Way to go. By contrast, just yesterday, we had an outing at the lake. Among the partipants: a 14 year-old my in-laws were responsible. She was not allowed in the lake at all (but wasn’t it so nice that her parents let her go with our group and see others enjoy the splashing they weren’t able to). She is 14 years old, I repeat–14 years old, and she is not allowed in the water at all.

    Why? One of her parents’ relatives (I forget the specifics) drowned many years ago.

    So, for that, tragic though it is, a 14 year old isn’t allowed in the lake? Yet, you’re going to take her there, or have others take her there, to see others get to enjoy the lake? That makes about as much sense, and is about as cruel, as taking a child to an ice cream shop and making them eat broccoli.

    If I had been the one responsible for the 14 year-old, I would’ve told the parents that either I was allowed to let her in the water, or they could find someone else to watch her. I would not be an enabler of stupidity.

    I think maybe I need to come up with some pretense of an excuse to meet this person again, and then her parents–and give them Lenore’s book. The way they’re raising this 14 year-old is the very definition of “going nuts with worry.”


  2. It makes no sense that every single time there is a tragedy discussed it’s time to…..the child was just 5, and my child played out of my sight at that age all the time in a secluded valley of kids; I would not feel so comfy letting him roam the area that Etan did. There is balance in all things–or should be.

  3. Shastadaisy, I wouldn’t either but not because that area is inherently dangerous. I wouldn’t because that area is not known to us and my children and I do not know what is normal for that area and what to be wary of. At the age of 6 their street smarts only extend to the areas we know. That said, I wouldn’t be comfortable letting them roam free in a rural or suburban area that we’ve never been to either.

  4. I love your blog and am a big believer in free range parenting. I did want to talk about Etan. Thirty three years later, seeing his name in the headlines was a punch in the gut.

    Etan was a classmate and friend of my oldest daughter. They were in a combination kindergarten/first grade class. She had turned 6 the month before; he was probably closer to 7. We have a picture of him at her birthday party. He was a very friendly, outgoing kid, comfortable talking to adults.

    That morning was the day after the school bus strike ended. There was probably confusion about who was taking the bus. At that time the school didn’t call if the student didn’t attend. No one realized he was missing until he didn’t return from school. About 3:30 I got a phone call: “Had I seen Etan?” tt was the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. By the time we put up posters and the police questioned the neighborhood, people had left for the w weekend.

    His disappearance had a devastating impact on downtown parents. He was just the age when we thought it reasonable to walk a block or two alone, take the elevator alone to visit a friend in our high-rise.

    My brave daughter became paranoid that someone was going to get into our 20th floor apt. from the roof. This week she posted this to Facebook:

    ” I went to school with Etan Patz and was traumatized by his disappearance. She worried that someone was going to get into our 20th floor apt. from the roof. I remember visiting his parents the weekend after he vanished and helping to hang flyers around SoHo — what was then a very seedy neighborhood. I really hope that, after 33 years, this case can finally be put to rest.”

    A year and one half late, we rather impulsively and stupidly moved from Manhattan to Bangor, Maine because my husband had a great job offer. It didn’t work out, but we never could afford Manhattan again. When explaining our rash decision over the years, I inevitably mention Etan.

    I had three children. The possibility that I couldn’t let my oldest out of my sight for years made three children in Manhattan seem impossible.

    I didn’t reminisce to criticize free range parenting, just to explain the impact of Etan’s disappearance.

  5. What a brilliant read.

    I particularly loved her conversation with her daughter (about kicking the person making her uncomfortable). What a wonderful reassuring and supportive explanation… That is mum’s job, just do what you think is right.

    You know many times as an adult I have been too timid to get involved. Maybe I heard a scream (probably just kids playing) or saw something (probably nothing) or saw someone needing help (nah they will be right) but have been too fearful of embarassing myself by misjudging the situation.

    When I was 14 walkingto my friends place in the dark after an indoor hockey game (I guess I was free-range!) I heard a horn being honked and some yelling for help. I ran to my friends house and her parents called the police to investigate. I had visions of someone being raped in a car and yelling for help. The police came and were great. It turns out it was just a woman trying to get her partner to hurry up and get in the car. The police told me that there were glad I called and it was the right thing to do. Funny I still feel embarrassed and the reason why is my mothers attitude to it all. She had come to pick me up and didn’t care at all, she kept saying to me “can we go now” without any concern for what my fears had been or my embarrassment for it being a false alarm.

    Good for the mum in this story telling her daughter that well.. Mistakes are okay.

  6. Mary Jo – thank you for sharing your story. For you and your family it hit so very close to home – your responses are perfectly reasonable and somewhat expected. Hopefully you didn’t live in fear your whole lives.

  7. No we haven’t lived in fear at all. My oldest has gone on to have an very adventurous life, visiting 75 world cities for work, living in Rwanda, Kosovo, and Niger. My kids did welcome the greater freedom possible in Maine and on Long Island.

  8. “The risk of a head injury from biking, while still tiny, is much larger than the risk of being abducted off the street.” Absolutely correct, but there’s more. Demanding that kids wear helmets and seat belts does not compromise their childhood experience in any way. Keeping them in eyeshot at all time completely cripples their childhood. We have to weigh the costs against the benefits!

  9. Mary Jo, thank you so much for sharing your story….

  10. So, this really plays into a question/problem I’ve been having. I want to have my daughter be more free range/independent. She just turned 5 this month. I remember at her age being allowed to go outside to play and roam a fairly large area. But my daughter has yet to experience that. Partly because there are no other kids about her age outside. She’s not interested and I don’t blame her. However when i asked my husband at what age he’d let her go to the park by herself he basically said never. He knew a girl who said that at age 12 she was at a park in a tree and some guy came and raped her. He wants to prevent this happening for our little girl by hovering. We live in a very safe area but he is still uncomfortable.

    What do you say to someone like this?

    Others state that they played outside but their grandpa sat on the front porch and watched the kids. I didn’t have any of these experiences. My parents let me grow up definitely free range cause that’s how they grew up. I even lived in a big city suburb.

  11. A six-year-old girl, Isabel Celis, went missing a few days ago in Tucson, which is also where I live. I am so glad that this website exists so I can try not to go crazy with paranoia over my kids possibly getting taken. It’s still hard not to, with it hitting so close to home, you know? It just makes me want to bar up all my windows and never go outside again. But then I re-read my copy of Free Range Kids and try to believe that what it says is true!!

  12. MHM, it sounds like you are going to have to take baby steps with him. Are there any kids in the neighborhood who just don’t play outside or are there no kids in the neighborhood? If there are kids who just aren’t playing outside I’d start by trying to change that. It has been said that all it takes sometimes is getting just one kid out there and that another will follow and another after that. The book Playborhood just came out and is supposed to have some good ideas on how to get that started. Meanwhile you could start taking baby, and I mean slow, very tiny baby steps to letting her play on her own. Start with playing together, then watching her in the yard from the porch, then within view of the porch, etc.

    While I have a few years (my kids are both under three) I’ve slowly started working on my husband. Because his brother spent much of his childhood in either a wheelchair or bodycast he grew up playing independently but not outside of his own house or yard. I’ve already started mentioning when these big news stories come up how crime has gone down, how most of the time a crime is committed by someone known to the victim, etc. When we go to the playground I step aside and let the two and a half year old play with other kids, reminding my husband that our son needs more time with kids as part of his speech therapy. It’s a slow process but we are making progress.

  13. MHM that’s a tough one. I’m a firm believer in “safety in numbers”, that kids do not get abducted or attacked when they are in pairs or groups, and that two heads are better than one if any kind of trouble arises. But if your daughter has no contemporaries in her immediate area, it’s hard to foster this kind of “range group”, even harder with your husband’s mind firmly wrapped around a single, albeit horrific event. But it sounds like that event happened to a girl who was alone. Would your husband feel better if your daughter ranged in a group, and if that group ranged across ages?

  14. NYC was actually fat more dangerous 30 years ago than today. It was pretty rife with crime then and was very dangerous and run down in many areas. I would expect something like that to be more likely to happen back then than now. Heck, in any city I would expect it to happen more back then than now. Child abductions aren’t as common now.

  15. *Far more dangerous.

  16. “…There is a lot to look out for, and it means that our daughter’s range is smaller than ours was at her age…” I don’t know about that. I was already walking to school and back by myself or with my brother or sister at age 6, and it just evolved from there. By the time I was 10, I was taking public transit, walking 20-30 min downtown core, cutting through shortcuts like allyways and parks. I lived as urban downtown as you can get. Seeing homeless people, prostitutes, and drunks and junkies were common for me. During those times, most kids parents (both) were busy working, so we grew up fairly quickly and learned to be street smart at a young age. Yes we fell, we scraped our knees, hands and elbows. We bumped our heads, and did the odd (lets make that clear…ODD) time of running away from a stranger that was being friendly but in a “wierd” way. Many of us had pretty good instincts at that age. Why? Because we were allowed to hone it, by being exposed to the world as we lived our childhood. Sure our parents worried when we were out of their site. But they never reacted as parents do now. And as stated many times over, it’s much safer today than it was back when we were growing up. Paranoia does the craziest things to people. It’s not the children, it’s the parents. The children only follow what the parents do. But I’m glad that there are some like Steff, reverting back to the old ways of raising children. After all, 10000 years of human civilization and raising children to be self sufficient at an early age can’t be wrong. Especially when compared to only about 10-15 years of the outbreak of helicopter/paranoid parenting.

  17. @MHM: as others have stated, it will take baby steps. But education is your foremost tool. In discussion, I would try to get your husband to open up about his fears. After all, as tragic as it is, one incident that he heard from someone else (and many years later after it happened) is pretty remote. If we had the mentality that we reacted to every little rare incidences, we’d literally turn certifiable. And that’s no way to live. And very unfair to your children to be growing up with the same fears. For they will inherit his, if he doesn’t take control of it. What it boils down to, is it’s his fear that he’s trying to quell. And your children will have to face the ramifications, without any choice. Children are far, far more resilient, and intelligent than most parents give them credit for. Why? Because of their own fears, doubts, and insecurities. I wish you the best, and your children even better. 🙂

  18. @MHM,
    My gut reaction to your story was to remember my mom.

    My mom was levelheaded and free-range, but she couldn’t handle the though of her children learning to drive. I guess mom had seen too much when she worked with trama casses in one of LA’s largest hospitals in the late 60’s / early 70’s. To top things off, just before my sister reached permit age our whole family was involved in a fatal car accident.

    Mom was refusing the permit before the accident. A few years later even my dad was urging that it was high time sister get a permit (to no avail).

    I finally asked mom mom what her plan was. When would she let my sister get a permit? The answer was basically never. I pointed out that ‘never’ wasn’t an option. Soon my sister would go to college and she would be an adult free to get a licence. Mom squirmed, her response was one part yeah, but I don’t want to ALOW it, and one part feable excuses about my sister not being as perceptive as she would like. I asked how that would be adressed? Getting no answer I told mom she really had only two choices. She could let sister learn to drive under her own supervision since she best knew my sister’s perceptual weakness. Or she could let sister’s first driving experiences be away at college in a big city with minimal to no supervison. “It’s your choice,” I told mom “but I don’t think it’s a good idea to let her learn on her own.” With that (3 year into this argument) mom reluctantly relented. Five years later when it was my turn mom was still a nervous wreck, but she knew she had an important job.

    So yes, try to get your husband help for the trama he has internalized. My aproach is probably fighting fire with fire, and it’s not kind. But if he can’t focus on the benifit and only on the potential for harm. Aim that focus where it matters. You could try pointing out that for women the risk of rape never goes away. In fact it is worst just when girls go beyond parental control (late teens and early adulthood). The strategies and lessons that keep a child safe while free ranging are the same ones that keep a teen safe from date rape, and a woman safe in unfamiliar places and with unfamiliar people. But a teen is unlikely to listen, and a woman doesn’t have to ask dad. So he can teach her to PRACTICE basic personal safety now, while she will still listen and talk to mom and dad. When you two can provide gradual exposure and guidance. Or he can wait until she sneaks out at night, to lord knows where with lord knows who becasue she feels all grown up. Then he can have a fight with a teen who feels invincible because she is as big as a grown woman so why can’t she go?

    Hiding from parental fears don’t make them go away. It only delays and makes that first experience more unpredictable. The best way to protect our children for their whole life, is to teach them how to protect themselves.

  19. […] Hi Readers Just got this letter from Steph in Minneapolis. Loved it. You will, too.  – L.  Dear Free-Range Kids: On Saturday afternoon, the neighbor kids rang the bell and off ran our almost 8-year-old daughter to wander the block, chalking sidewalks and digging worms.  Then we stood in the kitchen and talked about … Read more: […]

  20. […] Hi Readers Just got this letter from Steph in Minneapolis. Loved it. You will, too.  – L.  Dear Free-Range Kids: On Saturday afternoon, the neighbor kids rang the bell and off ran our almost 8-year-old daughter to wander the block, chalking sidewalks and digging worms.  Then we stood in the kitchen and talked about … Read more: […]

  21. […] Hi Readers Just got this letter from Steph in Minneapolis. Loved it. You will, too.  – L.  Dear Free-Range Kids: On Saturday afternoon, the neighbor kids rang the bell and off ran our almost 8-year-old daughter to wander the block, chalking sidewalks and digging worms.  Then we stood in the kitchen and talked about … Read more: […]

  22. @Hava: Well put. Starting them young is the best way. Always has been. “Tough love”…sometimes it can seem “mean”, but it always works. We just have to rememeber to use it sparingly.😉

  23. Child abductions have never been common, but the media loves these stories now than ever before. It was quite the coincidence that the weekend of my trip to NYC was the weekend Etan Patz was all over the news.

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