Are you a Free Ranger? A Helicopter? How do you raise an autonomous child who is also safe? A recent incident reminded me that I'm no closer to figuring that out.
At 8:15 a.m. last Friday, two siblings, both students at PS 29 elementary school in Cobble Hill, were walking to school. On the quiet corner of Clinton and Sackett streets, two men got out of a white van. The children encountered the men, one of whom gestured at them with his hand, and according to the children, audibly said to the other, “Those two.”
The children, a fifth grader and a second grader, became alarmed and reacted quickly. They moved away from the men, who they described as Caucasian and in their 40s. The kids ran north on Clinton Street. They reported that the men followed them on foot. The children ran to Degraw Street, then to Strong Place, and onward to the school. When they arrived, they shared what happened with administrators, who called the police. The children were unharmed. An Officer Gonzalez from the 76th Precinct came to the school on Monday to share what was known about the incident with parents. At this time, no further details have been made public.
Afterward, the usual stream of emails and text messages flooded my device. Safety guidelines were passed around—be aware of your surroundings, take well populated routes, don’t travel with headphones or cell phones in use—but it didn’t distract from the global concern.
And thus, once again, I found myself in a parental echo chamber, weighing the benefits of my kids’ autonomy against the safety of relentless supervision; the relief of an unworried mind, versus the benefits of experimenting with new freedoms.
I am fixated on the white van—an actual van implicated—and how there are remarkable numbers of them everywhere, on every street: parked, driving, turning, coming, going. Who’s in there? The opportunities for anonymity and the ubiquity of the vehicles feel suddenly like menacing facts. There are white vans everywhere I turn. Especially in booming Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, where scores of them service ongoing construction and real estate projects—$3 million houses sitting like open gashes about to be stitched up and shown off. The vans that deliver the modern, pewter house numerals affixed to every renovated brownstone alone could number in the hundreds.
When I received news of the incident from the principal, Rebecca Fagin, naturally I was disturbed. It’s said often, and for good reason, that this part of Brooklyn is a kind of urban Mayberry—as tight-knit, intertwined and supportive as any confection dreamed up in fiction. Neighbors take care of my kids; I take care of theirs. We make families out of our friends in this particular place and time. We travel on foot, and encounter people we know on the street constantly—we talk, talk, talk. Close quarters coupled with genuine affection for one another create neighborhoods and school communities strung up like thick vines along a trellis. Which is all to say that I would not hesitate to remove, and then eat, the still pumping heart of someone that tried to hurt one of our children — any child anywhere for that matter.
I read the school-wide email three times. Two white men. Made it to school safely. Travel in a group. A giant whitecap of nausea moved through me. The thought—just the thought!—of an encounter like this leading to actual harm, or simply leading to a terrified child, made me feel ill and angry. An up-on-hind-legs, bellowing, Grizzly energy stiffened inside me, but it competed with impotent fear about the dark motivations and people that share proximity with our children. It’s not that I see danger all around us; it’s not that I assume creeps with nefarious intentions lurk on every corner. But when provoked into thinking about it, I know that it’s THE nightmare, the biggest of all horrors. It’s the very worst thing human beings have ever come up with. The taking of a child? Surely this is a hell so unspeakable that even thinking it makes one’s mind reflexively divert, careen off into other thoughts. It’s just an impossible thing. And yet, of course it’s not. It happens. In all kinds of places and for all kinds of gut-twisting reasons.
So far, the only strategy I’ve developed to manage this incalculably hellish fact is by watching my kids, pretty much obsessively, since their births. I’m not remotely an “attachment parent,” and I’m not even particularly rigid or hard on myself about any element of raising them, but the knowing-where-they-are-and-who-they’re-with thing is in deep. It seems like yesterday when I catapulted like a wild animal out of my bed from a 3 a.m. sleep, a week after my son was born, and started shrieking into the dark hallway, “Where is the baby? Where is the baby! Where! I can’t find him!” He was on my side of the bed, burritoed in a co-sleeping contraption. I’d vaulted right over him. A hormonal, sleep-deprived panic, yes, but somehow the ripples of that initial tsunami have stayed with me. So I keep watch. Oh, there he is. There she is. There they are. Ok, ok.
I conceal it most of the time, I go about my business, but the preoccupation is there. I have intimately close friends who operate all over the spectrum and in wide ranging ways when it comes to their kids’ roaming privileges. They say I’m too nervous. I say they’re impressively bold. I must admit, I marvel at the competence and pluck of the parents and kids who benefit from much more autonomy than I’ve offered mine. My kids are confident; they manage all of their own relationships and friendships; they’re completely in their elements socially and at school; but doing tasks for themselves, progressing steadily to self-sufficiency, has no doubt been slowed by me.
Some of their friends walk to elementary school on their own—one even uses a walkie-talkie to tell his mother he’s arrived—and others take the subway to middle school in Manhattan. And then, there are the others; the generally clenched folks, like me. Truly, even picturing my kids on the train without an adult makes me wince. Or laugh uncomfortably. It’s easier to picture a kangaroo strap-hanging. I can’t chaperone many class trips due to work, and the first question I ask at pickup is, “Did you stay close to your grownup?” How lame. But I’m at the mercy of the religion I’ve made of Stranger Danger.
I must believe that my vigilance provides a kind of protection—because why else do I do it? The need to See and Know where they are at every second. Except when they’re in school, which should be the safest place in the world. That too, we’ve learned isn’t always true, but it’s one nightmare I tamp down. There’s no alternative for the kind of life I want for my family. I want them out in the world, with their friends, their teachers, living their brilliant little lives. So I let them do all the good stuff, experience the things that enrich them, and simultaneously happen to feel compelled to watch-watch-watch during all of it. I just need to make sure.
Would my kids have reacted as rapidly and perfectly as those two kids on Friday did? Did they know exactly what to do BECAUSE they were given more freedom? Would yours have done the same? Nobody knows. Not really. And even if they had, what I worry about isn’t their think-fast ability to protect themselves, but an individual’s more powerful instinct to do harm. Of course we have to teach our kids the tips, drill them, harangue them, about how to be safe. We have to know the most up to date advice on the what-to-do-ifs. I do all that, I quiz them with invented scenarios, I tell them to get help from someone who looks “like a mommy” rather than someone who looks “like a police officer,” but what I can’t figure out is how to loosen my grip.
I’m never going full-boat Free Range while they’re little; absolutely no way is that in my tool kit. Total Free Range, for me, would require tracking ankle bracelets on my kids and that would, from what I know of the philosophy, defeat the purpose. But finding a middle ground, something in between a Gowanus Canal Outward Bound for my nine year old and wearing him in a front facing Baby Bjorn would be good.
I know I have to let up. My kids shout in perplexed glee when they see an elementary school kid walking in Brooklyn alone. “That kid has NO grownup!” they say. “Do you think he has his own house key?! Look, he’s totally walking somewhere and no grownup is even anywhere near him. Where could he be going?!” The tenor of the exchange not unlike what it would be if we lucked upon a Woolly Mammoth exiting Court Street Grocers. I’m aware that I’ve done this to them.
Taking small steps is an approach. For instance, like when they were babies and I switched from the night vision spy-cam baby monitor to just the audio. I couldn’t see a damn thing. What do infants need privacy for? Many sleepless nights followed. Or for instance when I stopped waiting at the school door for three minutes after they’d gone inside—in case one of them…what? Changed their mind and decided to be home-schooled? I don’t know. I just felt I had to be ready.
Maybe if I put on the glasses that I never wear, and get onto my roof for a better vantage, I’ll be able to watch them walk all the way to school by themselves. This is an idea to simmer. (I kid, of course.) But I’m putting it all off for a while longer. And due to the fact that I’m not ready, they probably won’t be either, which means I’m doing them a disservice. Moments pass by—I can feel it sometimes—when I could be teaching them how to be more self-sufficient, less dependent. But just today my daughter held my hand the whole way to school. We walked quietly, not saying a word, holding hands, her mitten, my glove. I know that will be over too soon, and I know I could really be showing her how to handle more things by herself. But right and wrong seem beside the point for the time being. I’ll get there. Just not yet. Because I’m still in charge around here. Because when I think of all the narratives that could unfold, I just can’t see the upside.
This essay first appeared on South Brooklyn Post on March 20, 2014.