If you've ever wondered what it's like to be at the epicenter of a media storm - one that has labeled you an irresponsible parent (at best) -- let me tell you:
A lot of creeps find your e-mail.
Last week I wrote a column for my newspaper, The New York Sun, titled, "Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride The Subway." It basically said that I let him do this because he wanted to take a trip solo, he knew how to read the map, and I had every confidence that he could find his way home.
Two days later, said son and I found ourselves on the Today Show, MSNBC and FoxNews, trying to convince anchor after anchor after anchor that:
1) This was not a crazy idea - as they could see from the fact the kid was sitting there, grinning. And
2) I am not a crazy mom, as they could see from...
Well, that's the point. Not all of them could see. The mere fact that I'd let my son out of my sight made me seem nuts to more than a few people, who wondered why didn't I follow him, or keep checking in with a cell phone, or wait until he was 34 and balding before I let him go out on his own.
A poll on the NBC website asked whether any other viewers would let their kids do this amazingly dangerous thing - a thing that was normal behavior just a generation ago, when kids were allowed out the door without a security detail -- and 51% said no. Another 20% were on the fence. That left about a third on my side.
Wow. Remember back in the '70s (I'm sure you don't, you young web thing, you), when Soviet dissidents were thrown into insane asylums? They were protesting the Communist State and the rationale against them was: Since they couldn't possibly bring down the great and glorious USSR, they must be completely insane to even try.
I was beginning to feel like one of those dissidents.
My vision of the world, especially childrearing, turns out to be starkly at odds with the mainstream one, which believes that the world (especially New York) is chock-a-block with extras from "Saw III."
In a world like that, the idea of letting a child ride a bike, or hop on public transportation before, say, age 12, becomes "irresponsible," bordering on criminal. What's considered sane, meantime, is for us to guard our kids as if we've just heard of a prison break.
Which, in a way, we have. Turn on the TV most any day and you will hear something so scary that...you keep the TV turned on. That's the point. TV scares you so you'll stay tuned in. Then you're too scared to go out. So you stay home. You watch more TV and guess what? Something horrible happened somewhere, details at 11!
Okay, so it happened several time zones away and the station has been flogging this same awful story for three months. Does it occur to most viewers that a crime like this must be pretty rare, if the station has to talk about one as far away as, say, Portugal? Or Aruba?
No! The details are so wrenching that now you're NEVER going out and if your child wants to - forget it!
I met a guy at a party last week who makes his daughter phone home after walking one block to her friend's house. And he's in a suburb. The leafy kind! Two parents told me they won't let their kids walk to the mail box. There's too much "opportunity" for them to get snatched. Other parents told me that they'd love to let their kids start going out on their own - at maybe 13, or 14. Until then...
In they stay. Or they're driven around by their parents.
The fact that a child is literally forty times more likely to die in a car accident than at a stranger's hands makes no difference. Driving is seen as safe. Freedom - once a right of childhood -- is seen as suicidal.
I could go on and on about how safe New York City is (136th in crime among all large U.S. cities). And I could say that what my son did is something a whole lot of other city kids do daily, their mothers are just smart enough not to write about it. I could even add that, believe it or not, I'm a safety fanatic when it comes to helmets and seatbelts. And, of course, I could -- and will -- put in a plug for my new blog, Free Range Kids, a haven for folks who want to give their kids a longer leash.
But here's what I've learned from all the folks who don't want to do that, and send bile-filled notes instead: For some reason we live in a society that sees little difference between letting a child frolic in the front yard and letting a child frolic in front of a firing squad. It's impossible for people to calculate the difference between real and remote risks.
The dissident in me is now ready to start talking about something else, because it's no fun to be treated as insane by society when you're not.
Actually, it's probably no fun to be treated as insane even when you are. But that's for another day. Meantime, stay safe (enough).