One Sunday morning about two weeks ago, the phone rang.
"My name is Irving." I didn't catch his last name. Shipolsky or something. "I live in Bayside, Queens and I'm 90 years old."
Cool. Mazel tov! But...what's up?
"I just called to tell you about the first time I rode the subway by myself."
Ah -- got it! He'd tracked me down because I am The-Mom-Who-Let-Her 9-Year-Old Ride-the-Subway-Alone.
Like Irving in Queens, you may have heard about me, too, thanks to the fact I've been on every TV show from Dr. Phil to Nightline to The View. (I love those ladies! Yes, even Elizabeth!) Or it could be because I've been lauded and/or lambasted in newspapers and magazines from Chile to China to Malta. (An island. Who's stalking the kids there? Dophins?)
Or it could be you heard me on NPR one of the six or seven times they interviewed me about the topic. Or on the BBC. Or on the Today Show. Or Australian TV. Whatever. Suffice to say that last year, when I wrote a little column for the late, great New York Sun about letting my fourth-grader ride the subway solo from Bloomingdale's down to 34th Street and from there, to take a bus by himself to our apartment, it hit the proverbial "nerve."
Then, last month, when my "Free-Range Kids" book came out, the nerve got hit again, which is why Irving wanted to talk. I wanted to listen.
"You got time?" he asked.
"Well, I was 10 years old and I was going to my grandmother's house. It was for Hanukah. She lived in the Bronx. My mother made me take my little sister along, who was 8."
I could hear the smile.
"We got on the train and we stood in the front car so we could look out at the tracks. It was snowing..."
Now here's a guy who has been married for 66 years. He has children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and even two great great grandchildren, which I wasn't sure was humanly possible. He fought in World War II. But one of the defining moments of his LIFE was that first time he did something "grown up" by himself.
So these past few weeks, when I've found myself on talk shows that attract callers who would like to personally tie me to the subway tracks (or tie my son, to teach me a lesson), Irving became my new touchstone.
My whole point - lost on these lovely callers -- is not to deny that there is danger in the world. It's just to put that danger back in perspective so we can give our children exactly what Irving has treasured for eight solid decades: The chance to say: "I did it myself!"
A chance we've started denying our kids.
As parents, we all want to raise children who are self-confident and independent. And we all want them to be safe. What's happened in the past generation is that our fear for their safety has overwhelmed any old-fashioned notion of the benefits of letting them knock around and make their own fun. Even make their own mistakes.
I don't blame us parents for feeling so scared. I blame the things that got us to this point:
*A litigious society that has trained us to consider every situation in light of, "What if?" and dream up worst-case scenarios.
*A kiddie safety industry that keeps warning us about remote childhood dangers so we'll run and buy their products, from baby knee pads to toddler helmets. (Yes, for real: helmets your child is supposed to wear to protect his brain while learning to walk. As if evolution hadn't already come up with that whole "skull" thing.)
*A legion of parenting magazines and advice books eager to point out the hideous and lasting effects of giving our kids the wrong food, book, toy, feedback, praise, discipline, hug, class, or rattle, so we'll buy their words of wisdom (that worry us even more).
*I even blame Sesame Street. Because if you go get the collector's DVD, "Sesame Street: Old School," featuring highlights from 1969-1974, all you'll see are delightful scenes of kids playing follow-the-leader and tag and such without any grown-ups around. And even though this show was created to model the IDEAL safe, happy childhood as envisioned by a battery of psychologists and educators, this nostalgia-fest comes with the warning: "These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups." Like a porno movie! The wimps at PBS refuse to sanction any notion that kids can play on their own anymore. So now it's modeling the NEW norm: Constant parental supervision.
But ball-less as Big Bird has become, I blame our parental fears on the other channels even more. Not PBS -- CBS and the rest, including, of course, cable TV.
Consider that when our parents were raising us, they were watching Dallas, or Dynasty, or even Marcus Welby, MD. His patients usually lived.
Today's parents are watching CSI. Not only does almost everyone except Gary Sinese end up covered with maggots, a Mayo Clinic study comparing two seasons' worth of crimes on CSI to two seasons' worth of crimes in real life found that CSI (and by extension, most TV crime dramas) totally misrepresents what's really going on in America. On TV, the majority of crimes are committed by strangers who, be they brilliant psychopaths or just plain creeps, pick their victims at random. In a world like that, it would be crazy to let your children out of your sight because they're being plucked, every weeknight, like daisies.
But in reality, most criminals do not hide in the bushes outside school. They know their victims. Often, they live with them. And rather than being fiendishly clever, a lot of them are just drunk (so said the Mayo Clinic, too). So the idea that kids are being snatched right and left by lurking pedophiles is wrong.
As is our perception of the crime rate. Since its peak in the early '90s, the crime level has plummeted by about 50%. Nationally, crimes against kids and adults are back to the levels of 1970. Here in New York, they're back to the levels of about 1963. So if you were growing up and playing outside in the '70s or '80s, your children are actually safer than you were.
It doesn't feel that way because when you go to CNN.com, there's another wide-eyed child staring out at you - a cold case they'll plaster on the screen if it's a slow news day (i.e., a day when no white girls were abducted). Leave CNN and you're back to CSI, or Law & Order SVU, where it's the same story, served up with a bow of duct tape.
So our brains are filled to overflowing with terrible stories and heartbreaking pictures, and scary advice and hysterical products, all very much out of whack with the fact it's a great time to be a kid, especially in New York City.
That's why it was so nice to hear from Irving.
Irving not only remembers what life was like before this fear set in, his first foray into adventure has become a part of his very soul. He shared it with me because it made him who he is. I share it with you because our kids deserve no less.
They don't have to ride the subway by themselves. They could shop for groceries, or make dinner. They could pick a sibling up from school or spend Wednesday afternoons in the park, without a coach, a uniform and a guaranteed trophy. They deserve a chance to fall and fail and get themselves back up again and come home shouting those magic words:
"I DID IT MYSELF!"
And 80 years later, give or take, they'll thank you.
Read more from Free-Range Kids here.