I just finished reading another of those columns by a psychologist listing techniques for improving your child’s self esteem. It left me with more questions than answers. How many of those participation medals have your kids collected over the years? Or have they lost track and discarded them like broken toys? Kids quickly learn the value of a medal earned by simply showing up for an event. That’s not what self esteem is all about.
Actually, I don’t remember any particular medals from my childhood. The awards were there, I suppose. Colored ribbons for this or that? An embossed certificate for perfect attendance? Maybe. They just haven’t stuck in my mind.
But the one big honor that does stick in my mind came the day my mother told me I was free to explore the world on my own. I’m sure she had doubts, but she made a real ceremony of pointing out that I had been trustworthy, had not given her reason to worry about my judgment, and she thought I was mature enough to take my bike off the block we lived on. The truth was that my trustworthiness was no better than average, my judgment had been imperfect at best, and I had given her many reasons to worry about her eldest son.
None of that mattered though. I had graduated to a new stage in life. I could cross the street, leave the block we lived on without asking for permission. And Mom was not above making sure I understood the significance of this step. In fact, if I remember correctly, she made a point of spelling it out pretty clearly. It meant I was growing up. I was trusted not to do something stupid and get myself killed while out of her sight.
I could bike the six blocks to Grandma Morgan’s house. I could ride the twelve blocks to the Bookmobile, all by myself. Or, heading in a different direction, I could peddle clear up to the public high school and its summer recreation program. I could go to a friend’s house, to the corner grocery for candy or comics, anywhere at all. It was 1950, I was nine years old, and Cedar Rapids was mine for the taking. That was real self esteem.
Sixty-five years later, I wonder if Mom would have been so free with her permission if we’d had a television set and she could have listened to the news about all the terrifying dangers out there? Fortunately for me and all the other kids riding around, television had not yet come to Cedar Rapids.
The next time any of this came to mind was more than twenty-five years later when Joe, my son, reached free range age. We had similar talks, and a few years after, Kelli was turned free to explore the world at an appropriate age. We worried, a lot, and they sometimes had more discrete surveillance than they were aware of. Remember, bad things were in the news then as well as now. But we were aware that those bad things were, statistically, overwhelmingly unlikely.
Jump to 2015 when parents who try to let their children develop a little independence and self confidence are being charged with “dependent neglect.” In Maryland, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are being investigated by child protective services for allowing their ten and six year old children to walk a mile home from a park. Dare I say it? This is just wrong.
We say we want our children to develop a sense of self worth and self confidence. Eventually, we want them to become capable and independent adults. Maybe the world has changed enough that nine years old is no longer appropriate. That’s for parents to determine, depending on where they live and their individual circumstances. But whatever they decide, those children are only a few years away from that driver’s license, the use of a car, and a true freedom they need to be prepared for.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the publicity that results every time some poor child is abducted. Naturally, any parents who watch television are terrified that their child will be the next one picked up by a stranger. I was. You would be too. But that fear is not well grounded. We love to talk about how our idealistic childhoods cannot be duplicated because “times have changed,” but research shows that children are no more likely to be taken by sexual predators than they were forty, fifty, or sixty years ago. It did happen even then… very rarely, but it was always a frightening possibility.
One of my parent’s favorite stories about “the old days” told about how I used to ride the city bus to kindergarten, first, and second grade. I walked a block and a half to the bus stop, paid my nickel fare, and rode the bus two miles to school. This all seemed quite natural for a five year old at the time. The one unbreakable parental rule stated that a child, if offered a ride, was not to get in a car with ANYBODY. And nobody ever offered, until the day a car pulled up, the driver pointed out that the weather was threatening, and asked if I’d like a ride to school.
It was several years later when Mom finally told me how proud she had been as the school janitor told my parents what he thought was a hilarious story about how I wouldn’t budge from the curb. He knew me; I knew him; my parents knew him; if ever there was to be a safe ride, that was it, but the point was that even then, I knew you don’t get in a car with ANYBODY.
Of course I was never given detailed information about what might happen to me if I ever got into somebody else’s car, but I knew it was bad, and I knew the best I could hope for was punishment from my parents.
Are there dangers today? Of course, but any one of the more than sixty million children in the United States is twice as likely to die in an airplane crash as to be kidnapped. Chances of a frequent flier dying? Approximately one in five hundred thousand. Chances of being kidnapped? Approximately one in a million. As if the point needed to be made any sharper, the chances of dying in a car crash are one in 225, more than 4,000 times greater.
Statistically, the greatest danger of children being victimized comes from family members, relatives, and friends of their parents. And you don’t prepare for or protect from “Uncle Leroy” by never letting them step out from under constant adult supervision.