I walked you halfway to your friend’s house just now. We took the first part of the journey together, two blocks over, and then we sounded out the names on the street signs and you pointed us in the right direction and I turned back home on the next corner while you continued on your way.
Except, of course, I didn’t immediately walk home. Instead, I stood behind an overgrown rosebush at the corner, watching you skip down the street. You did a few karate kicks, picked up something shiny on the sidewalk, moved toward your target destination. You got smaller and smaller, and when you were just a bright red T-shirt of a child, I finally turned away and walked home. By the time I got there, your friend’s mother had texted to say you were there.
So. Another milestone. Another literal step toward your independence. You’re seven: there’s no reason you can’t make this kind of journey on your own, in your own neighbourhood, in the bright light of day. You have no shortage of friends along the route, some you know by name and others only in passing, all who would help you out if you got lost.
And really, you probably could’ve taken this step—this series of steps—earlier. As I said, you’re seven, starting second grade. But we’ve held off, as your friend’s parents have held off, for several reasons, chief of which is fear. Not fear that you couldn’t do it. Not fear that you might be abducted, hurt, or worse. We were scared of what people might think of us for letting you walk down (not to mention cross) neighbourhood streets alone at age five, six, seven. We were scared that we might get arrested, or cited by the Children’s Aid Society.
Which is ridiculous on so many levels. Statistics Canada reports that Canada’s crime rate is the lowest it’s been since 1972, both in terms of absolute numbers and severity. Child abduction by strangers is astonishingly rare here, too—overwhelmingly, children who go missing are taken by family members and close “friends.” In other words, our kids may be better off playing alone or with their peers in the park than under close supervision by people they know—although you wouldn’t know that when police in the United States lock up parents of seven-year-olds and nine-year-olds for walking by themselves to or playing alone at the park (things I did freely at your age, by the way, Isaac).
I resent that fear. I resent its effects on your own freedom and independence, as well as on mine. I resent the warped view it gives us both of society and its relative safety. I resent the misplaced focus on this so-called well-being of our children, of the misguided reliance on police involvement to keep them safe—and I resent it these days especially in light of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the police shootings of so many other young black men in the United States. Sure, lots of people are not safe on North American streets, Isaac, but (and this is entirely unfair) you’re not one of them, at least not on our street. And I deeply resent, on behalf of society as a whole, the sharp racial and class divides that make going to the police unthinkable for some people and entirely too easy for others.
And I resent that these are the things I focused on as I watch you skip off, so excited and proud, to your friend’s house. I admit I got choked up, perhaps even teary, at the site of your pure joy, your growing maturity. It sucks, Isaac, that my own joy in your newfound freedom was marred by other people’s fears—fears, and not facts, that needlessly ruin or end the lives of too many people.
Read more: Confessions of a free-range parent>
Isaac, you’re getting older. You and your brother will venture out into the world on your own more and more often. One day, it won’t seem like such a big deal, although today it does. I pledge to keep sending you both out there. Because your development into full human beings depends on it. Because the overwhelming evidence tells me that you’re not only better off but safer when you venture into your community and make connections, despite what the media would have me think.
And I pledge to do what I can to help make sure that our streets are safe for everyone. Because no mother should feel anything but pride and joy when she sends her son or daughter out into the world. Certainly, we shouldn’t be scared.
Thunder Bay, Ont., writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences. Read more from Susan at The other mother and tweet her @MamaNonGrata.