Monday, March 30, 2009

Police pick up ten-year old boy for walking to soccer practice alone

Last week I had just interviewed Kidpower founder Irene van der Zande for The Mojo Mom Podcast, talking about teaching kids skills that enable them to navigate the world independently. The next thing I knew, one of my neighbors told me that her ten-year old grandson who lives in Mississippi had been stopped and picked up by the police because he was walking to soccer practice alone.

The soccer field was at the elementary school about a half mile from his home!

Here's an excerpt from the Columbus, Mississippi local news coverage:
William made it as far as Seventh Street North, near what used to be Barnhill’s Buffet, when a Columbus Police Department cruiser stopped the boy. The officer was responding to several 911 calls made by people who had seen William walking the sidewalks alone.

The officer drove William the rest of the way to soccer practice, and then went about the business of tracking down [William's mother] Lori Pierce.

He caught up with her at her son’s soccer practice and proceeded to read her the riot act regarding the safety of her child and potential criminal liability she could have faced had anything horrible happened.

“He told me I could have been charged with child endangerment,” she said. “I was so shocked.”

Although Pierce is quick to point out she never felt anger toward the officer nor the police department, the stern warning given to her by the policeman concerned her deeply.
I feel for today's parents, I really do. I have these questions myself--how much freedom can my child handle? How much leeway do I give her? And importantly, I think we need to consider the cost of letting them grow up without life experience.

William's case seems like a slam dunk to me: of course a mother can analyze the situation and decide that her ten-year old can walk a half mile alone. William wasn't in distress. He had a plan and a cell phone. His Mom was going to meet him at practice in a few minutes. But what do we do when well-meaning neighbors start calling 911?

It's no surprise that William's story was reported on Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids blog. Last year Skenazy caused a stir by allowing her nine-year old son to ride home alone on the New York subway.

I am not going to tell you how you should feel about the Skenazy family's experiment, but the media firestorm that ended up labeling her America's Worst Mom was an overreaction if I've ever heard one!

At the time, Skenazy wrote about the conflicting feelings of today's parents:
Even as the stations (and Web sites and Web logs) were having a field day with the story, people kept pulling me aside to say that they had been allowed to get around by themselves as kids, and boy were they glad.

They relished those memories — and thanked their parents! — and then in the next breath they admitted: They would never let their kids do the same.

Why not? Has the world really become so much more dangerous in just one generation
The world hasn't gotten so much more dangerous, but we have evolved a keener sense of awareness and stricter standards of child safety and supervision. I generally think that this is a good thing. But the problem is that we have few clear societal guidelines or consensus about how to implement safe judgment about when to let our children operate independently. By "locking them up," metaphorically speaking, we may feel that they are safer, but by doing so we may deprive them of essential life experience that can only be gained by doing.

Remember the story of Sleeping Beauty? After it was said that Aurora would die on her 16th birthday after pricking her finger on a spindle, her well-meaning father had all spinning wheels destroyed. So when the witch showed up on Aurora's birthday with the spinnning wheel, what did Aurora do? She was immediately drawn to the spindle and pricked her finger. (Magical intervention allowed her to fall asleep rather than die.)

I am NOT saying that we should let our kids experiment with dangerous things (such as drugs or alcohol), but I am saying they need life skills and chances to operate independently and exercise judgment, within generally safe parameters.

We're confronted with what I call "The Paradox of Parenting," which can be summed up by the classic quote: "Good decisions come from experience...experience comes from bad decisions."

That's why I am so proud to be working with Kidpower, which teaches parents how to give those skills to their kids, so that kids can get experience by exploring the world with safety and confidence.

So what do we teach in Kidpower? Just today I was sent this excellent graphic that illustrates our Kidpower Tools to Live By (follow link for full-size text!). Check it out and think about what the world would be like if all children and adults had the training that empowered them to call on these skills. You can find more information and free resources at

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Anonymous Irene said...

I agree with everything Amy writes here. I also remember the joy of being out in the world on my own as a child. With my own children, I was much more aware of the potential dangers they might face - and wanting to prepare them to enjoy being out in the world safely was a big part of the motivation for Kidpower. As Amy says, finding the right balance between supporting a child's independence and protecting them from harm is a challenge for any parent. The key is to give children tools by practicing skills for protecting their emotional and physical safety in contexts that are age-appropriate and relevant for their lives.

9:11 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Hi Irene, thanks for writing in and being my podcast guest. It was incredibly fortuitous to get the Kidpower "Tools to Live By" today. I feel like I could teach a workshop using that as a curriculum!

9:16 PM  
Blogger Lori said...

This is Lori - the mom in Mississippi. I appreciate you sharing my story. I always knew I wanted to instill independence in my children and the last few weeks has just reinforced that belief even more.

My son has been through a program similar to Kidpower that a friend here locally does. I think it's very important to teach them coping skills and its important to let them take on the world alone.

I am downloading some Mojomom podcasts now to listen to during my workout! Keep the conversation going.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Di said...

We just had this conversation a few weeks ago, except when to leave your child home alone. All of us had different ages for our kids, but they were all dependent on the kid, where you were going and how long you were going to be gone. That is a parent's decision.

I think it is a silent majority that thinks the hoopla about a woman letting her son walk to practice alone is ridiculous! When I was 6, I used to walk to church on Saturdays for my communion class. It was about a half-mile away.

And as my friend Leigh pointed out recently when a police officer admonished her for leaving her 5 year old out on the sidewalk on her bike while Mom went inside to get a bottle of water...statistically, childhood abductions by strangers are no more common now than they were in the 50s.

The people judging parental decisions seem to think that we should put them in plastic bubbles to avoid any possible danger...or any possible opportunity for the child to use his judgment and make decisions.

7:02 PM  

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