And then what happens?

It’s no doubt a function of being a plugged-in mother of three, but it seems to me that American culture is divided on the subject of children in the public space. I’ve had many a conversation with childless individuals in which they offer advice on how to rear children or simply complain about their behavior.

I, too, had a lot of ideas about parenting before I become one. Things that were once horrifying (babywearing) became daily practices. Things that once seemed reasonable (spanking )_ became not so reasonable. But one that  hasn’t changed over the past 11.5 years is my relationship with and attitude toward risk.

I generally think of myself as risk-averse. I don’t gamble, take out ARMs, or cross against the light. But I d have a basic trust in society and my fellow humans. Some would say that’s naive–and maybe they are right–but as an anxiety sufferer with its swirling thoughts and worst-case scenarios, I have come to embrace this basic human trust rather than become crippled by my fears.

While stories like this are increasingly rare, they do reflect my larger belief that it’s OK to teach my children to embrace the world rather than flee from it. That less harm can come from teaching them to trust themselves than can come from teaching them to fear everyone and everything.

I feel I should point out that I am not teaching them to ignore their fears. Although I have not read Gavin de Becker’s Gift of Fear, it is a practice that my children–and myself–employ instinctively. After all, The Girl, now 8, has run into the house on more than one occasion to report to me that there’s a creepy guy sitting in a van with the motor running on the street outside our house. Each time this happens, I’ve responded with a reassuring hug for my daughter and a trip outside myself. The guy, as it turns out, is our next door neighbor’s father, an aging general contractor and lifelong smoker who is now suffering renal failure. He looks a little different (and a little creepier) than when The Girl first met him.

Letting my children loose in the world so that they can explore it safely is my job as a parent. To me, teaching my children to interact with other people, to become self-sufficient and self-reliant, to build and build upon life experiences, and to trust themselves is probably the third most important thing I can teach them, just after unconditional love and treating others with kindness and respect.

In May, I attended a talk given by the Free-Range founder herself, Lenore Skenazy. That experience–being in a preschool classroom with 30 other mothers (and a smattering of fathers) who shared my philosophy on letting kids be kids, even in the big, bad city–gave me the high of a shared connection or a great deal at the Treasure Store. So I spent the summer giving my kids increasingly longer leashes. The Girl walked to the corner store and back with a friend. Five times. The Tot Who’s Not, age 6, finally learned to scooter and started doing scooter laps around the block. The Boy got a new bicycle and began roving around the neighborhood on his bike. Except for 2-3 neighborhood boys whose parents share my philosophy, the only other kids he met were 6th and 7th grade boys from his school.

Earlier this week, after dropping The Girl off at the movies with her girl scout troop, I found myself with 90 minutes to kill in a Barnes & Noble, where I settled in with a stack of magazines and a cup of coffee. Among the mags was Real Simple Family, which featured a cover story on helicopter and overprotective parenting. The first page of the story featured wisdom from, yet again, Ms. Skenazy, who reiterated the difference between taking risks and engaging in risky behavior.

It’s a good reminder for us all. There are risks in merely existing in our world, but risky is walking home through an unlit secret passage in the dark, accepting a drink in an open cup from a stranger, or waiting until your kids are in college before you let them leave the house without you. 

After the first time I let The Girl go to the corner store and The Tot Who’s Not scooter around the block, I asked each of them if anyone had approached or talked to them. Giving me the look that clearly said, “Mom, you are Looney Tunes,” they reported that no, no one had talked to them, approached them, or motioned them to get into a car. I answered with a what-if, and each of them gave me the withering look and said, “Scream and run like hell.”

It’s the same look they give me when I repeat, for the gazillionth time, some warnings before sending my boys into the men’s restroom: “Remember: don’t talk to anyone and if anyone tries to touch you, scream as loud as you can and run like hell.” The Boy has heard this so many times that I don’t even bother to repeat it to him. He recently told me, “Mom, this is imprinted on my brain!” The Tot Who’s Not has heard it less often, but he’d risk peeing on the floor rather than enter the ladies’ room with me in public under any circumstance.

This is how I prefer it. And I think this is how most girls age about 8 and older would prefer it as well. I can’t imagine having to fumble with an early period in a public restroom while sharing a stall wall with your 3rd period classmate. This is why it’s a problem for a mother to bring her 8-year-old son into the ladies restroom with her, as one mother wrote that she did when the question of allowing opposite sex children use the opposite sex public restroom arose recently on a popular Chicago message board. Other answers to the question ranged from age 5 to age 34. I am not making this up.

My boys were 6 and 4 when I began encouraging them to use the restroom designated for their gender. Part of this was laziness on my part as The Boy would invariably ask to pee just as we sat down to eat something. But then part of me realized that the fear of using the Target restroom is, essentially, a phobia: irrational and not statistically likely. Since then, I’ve trusted my boys to use the men’s public restroom and trusted the world to let them do their business without comment or incident. And so far, the public restroom public has been worthy of that trust. And that’s been true at K-Mart, Target, the library, tollway oases, O’Hare airport, the grocery store, the park, and the beach.

On a related note, I found myself facing another “Am I crazy?” moment this week while I listened to two parents at a school event discuss how to get crossing guards in place to protect their 4th-7th grade children while they walked 1/2 mile or less to school. When I said that The Boy walks the same route with 50+ morning commuters, they said that they didn’t feel comfortable letting their children walk the same route alone because of a nearby SRO and shelter, and exit-ramp vagrants. They then went on to say that because they work in public service, they have a different perspective than I do. 

I’ve been reflecting on this conversation all day and mostly I want to know: What do these parents know that I do not? Should I be more concerned about exit-ramp vagrants? I’ve passed these folks many a morning on my way to work and they usually look as if they are sleeping it off. Whatever it is. I can’t imagine any one of them rising from their cardboard-backed slumber to bother me or my kid. In two years of commuting the same route, I’ve had 1 person ask me for money, which I would call neither harassment nor particularly damaging an experience. Yes, I am an adult and these types of interactions should be no big deal to me. But how did they get to become no big deal to me? Experience and exposure. 

I understand that law enforcement sees the underbelly of Chicago, and I, in my safe NWside neighborhood and mostly daytime roving, don’t have much exposure to it. But I’ve looked up the crime statistics for my police district and I still don’t get it. What am I missing? What do police officers and public servants see happening in our area that I do not? Does the department issue crime alerts for only some of the incidents that happen in our precinct? Do police and fire departments track the crimes that they were able to prevent from happening? Do these departments redact crime reporting? 

I’m pretty sure that despite a lot of anecdotal, on-the-job experiences, the statistics–at least those reported by our police precinct–do not bear out the idea that great harm comes from school-aged children being approached by strangers on the street in our area. In the highly unlikely scenario that an exit-ramp vagrant, SRO or shelter resident approached my kid on a well-lit, well-traveled public street, the question I wanted to ask, but didn’t is: and then what happens? And how do you know?

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