Why are we still debating whether children under the age of 13 should be allowed to walk to and from school alone? Is keeping our children safe really up for debate?
As a clinical psychologist, I often counsel victims of violent crime. Given the risks that children face in our time, it is naÃ¯ve and simply irresponsible to argue, as Lenore Skenazy does in her book “Free-Range Kids,” that because we were all raised in the 1970s in a “free” way, our kids should be as well.
In the ’70s, our generation also didn’t believe in sex education for our children, and believed that being gay was a “choice” and should be demonized. We also didn’t believe domestic violence was a “problem,” that the Catholic Church would never put children in harm’s way, and seat belts and car seats weren’t mandatory. There are many things over the last 40 years that — through studies, our intelligence, our emotional reactions, and plain mothers’ intuition — became simply obvious at this point in time. One of them is that young children should not be left alone in a public place — whether it is walking home from school or a friend’s house, playing in a park, or playing in the front yard unsupervised. Would any of you even question putting your child in a car seat or forcing them to buckle up when you get into the car? Is that too restrictive? Not free enough for your taste?
I believe what is often the motivator for these “free living” parents is that by allowing their kids to be “independent,” it frees up the parents to focus on themselves, and also saves them the cost of child care. The parents are simply choosing their own independence over their child’s safety.
I do not agree that depriving our children of the “freedom” to walk home alone from school quells their sense of independence. Children develop a sense of independence in many ways that don’t put them at risk. For example, when your kids choose their extracurricular activities, the clothes they wear, how they wear their hair, the dÃ©cor of their bedroom, or the games the family plays on game night — this, in my opinion, gives your child a strong sense of independence and power at much less risk. The experience of “independence” is developed across time, and in age-appropriate and safe ways. The argument that allowing a 9-year-old to ride public transportation alone promotes independence is ignorant and irresponsible. My 9-year-old son begs me to stay home alone while I take his sister to dance class. I in no way believe that is his “cry” for independence, or that I should even consider it for a minute to promote his “independence.” He is a 9-year-old boy who wants to stay home and play Wii for as long as he can.
By saying this, I am in no way blaming the mother of Somer Thompson — but I am sure if she could go back in time, she would agree that a 10-year-old, even if told repeatedly never to let your siblings out of your sight, would in real time not be able to control a situation laden with heated emotions. We know there was an argument, and Somer ran off from the pack. We can’t expect a 10-year-old to be able to manage an emotional situation such as this because she herself is a child, and will herself be overwhelmed by her feelings — because, again, she IS A CHILD. Somer’s sister will now live with the guilt and pain of this loss and her own sense of responsibility.
I have worked with clients who were “in charge” of their younger brothers and sisters when a tragedy occurred (drowning, being struck by a car, and an abduction), and the pain and impact on their lives is enormous. The conclusion is always this: “Why as a child was I put in the place of being responsible for the safety of my siblings?” I have also discovered that most experts agree that a teenager should not begin babysitting until they are at least 13 years of age and mature. Even then, the guidelines are clear on ages and how many children should be supervised by one teenager. I think we should look to these guidelines for giving children the “freedom” Lenore Skenazy is pushing for. Don’t you?
You see, it is about maturity and ability to deal with different contingencies in one’s environment. Younger children do not have the brain development to deal with issues like adults do — it is that simple. They can be manipulated and lured much easier than adults, which is why they are at greater risk.
It is sad that we live in the “at-risk” society that we do. However, as we have seen in the news, there are many, many sex offenders living among us — and we simply cannot afford to place our kids in harm’s way under the guise of “letting them live free.”
There are two tracks to deal with sexual offenders:
1) Community Information and Protection of Children
This is composed of access to information regarding the location of registered sexual offenders, and includes where they can live within range of schools, libraries, and parks. It also includes the enactment of the Amber Alert system and Megan laws.
I believe we need to take this further. We should have national guidelines for the training of our children in schools on how to be safe and protect themselves as much as possible from sexual predators. We need to create ways for our children to get to and from school with adult supervision.
Our schools should be community centers with access to after-care programs for working parents. It is imperative that we as a society deal with the issue of after-school care in a progressive and aggressive manner.
I do not think that it is paranoia to say that we should provide GPS devices for our children. In the case of Elizabeth Olten, the police were able to locate her body because of her cell phone. There are many GPS devices that you can give to your children that would enable the authorities to help locate your child. Devices can be placed in shoes or in backpacks and could be monitored by the Global Positioning Satellite System immediately. As we know, when a child goes missing, time is of the essence. We place a greater emphasis on locating our cars or our cell phones than our kids. Again, it’s a risk-reward issue. To me, it’s a no-brainer.
2) Sentencing and Civil Commitment of Child Sexual Offenders
We should all be upset at the differing sentencing guidelines for sexual offenders. I believe we need to make sexual crimes against children a federal offense, which would automatically mandate sentencing guidelines that are uniform for all states.
â€¢ Mandatory federal sentences for child sexual abuse should be similar to Wisconsin’s tough sexual offender statutes that include the following: “Jessica’s Law” legislation (created in memory of Jessica Lunsford, who was kidnapped and killed by a sex offender who did not register in Florida) imposes a minimum 25-year sentence for those convicted of first-degree sexual assault of a child. Another measure passed by Wisconsin lawmakers provides judges with the authority to give life sentences to offenders twice convicted of first-degree sexual assault (the previous maximum was 40 years). With the high rate of repeat offending by child sexual predators, it is imperative that sentencing guidelines are used to protect our children from pedophiles.
â€¢ Kansas has enacted the Sexually Violent Predator Act of 1994, which was passed in response to concerns about recidivism rates among sex offenders. Under the law, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, the state can commit individuals who are likely to engage in “predatory acts of violence” due to a “mental abnormality” or “personality disorder.” Few confined sex offenders are ever released. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy has followed the issue since that state passed a civil commitment law in 1990. As of December 2004, the Institute reports that 3,493 people have been held for evaluation as sexually violent predators or committed for treatment, and 427 individuals have been discharged or released. This seems like a good alternative to keep sexual predators off the streets, but it is far more expensive than prison. Civil-commitment legislation was introduced in South Dakota as well, but lawmakers decided to create a no-parole provision for certain repeat sex offendersinstead.
Given the clear danger of predatory child sexual abusers, as a nation, we must come together and create clear and tough guidelines for repeat child sexual predators. We must educate our children about sexual offenders, and we must wake up to the reality that we can’t live as if it is 1970. Sadly, we must wake up and deal with the reality that there are people who look for the “window of opportunity” to take a child, sexually assault them, and throw them away like garbage. These are real risks in the reality of our time. We must take our shoes off at the airports, put our children in car seats, and not allow them to be alone in public places or walk home from school alone. Is it really that much of a “hassle” for us to take these measures? I would not want to be a parent who sits with the pain of having a child taken, assaulted, or even killed — and know that I placed my child in danger when it could have been avoided.