May 21, 2018
Even today, I clearly remember the walk from my childhood home to my elementary school. After all, I walked the path for years, beginning at the age of 5.
As a girl, I knew the names of the majority of our neighborhood families en route. We lived in a small, Utah town and most of our neighbors were members in our LDS (Mormon) church ward. In preparation for my walking to school journey, my mother advised me about the homes where I should “knock on the neighbor’s door” if I encountered any trouble.
“What kind of trouble?” I asked.
She proceeded to provide a semi-age-appropriate litany of all sorts of “terrible things” strangers and “sick people” could do to children. She sternly commanded that I never get into “a stranger’s car.” She ordered me to shout, kick, scream, and run if I needed to stay safe. “Run to a neighbor’s house!” she said. Basically, she put the fear of God in me.
To stem my growing consternation, she reminded me that I was strong, brave, and (once my siblings entered their elementary years) “in charge of keeping my sisters safe.” My mom asked me to “stop the bullies” if I saw them. She told me to “invoke the name of Jesus Christ” if I got scared and to walk with confidence: a heady task for a child.
Why didn’t my parents just drive me? My father left for work early in the morning when I was still in dreamland. And my mother’s world was full of toddlers and babies – I was the eldest of her seven. It would have been quite an ordeal to load the family car up and drive me to and from school each day.
So, I walked. Often with neighborhood children, and sometimes alone, I walked.
Over the years, my sisters joined me and we walked together. During summer months we continued to walk, or bike, alone to local parks, our public library, and the yogurt shop on Main Street. We strictly observed the limits within which we were given a rather wide berth to explore – cognizant of our “stay safe rules” along the way.
No “stranger” ever bothered me, until I was 14.
By that time, I regularly walked a good distance past my old elementary school to a local Chinese restaurant. I had started working part time as a waitress after school.
While walking to the restaurant one afternoon, I noticed a solitary man driving slowly behind me. I paused, turned around, and got a good look at him. I also took note of the homes around me. I didn’t know too many people in the neighborhood, but I found a few friendly places should I need to seek support. In the days before cellphones, I relied on my gut instinct and my mother’s injunctions.
I kept walking. He kept following me, slowly.
It looked like he was rummaging with something down by his knees. It was hard to tell. He would drive at a snail’s pace behind me and stop. I kept turning around to get a good look at him and his license plate. Finally, I decided I wouldn’t walk any further. I’d let him pass me by.
So, he did. Slowly, right by the sidewalk where I stood – doing my best to be brave in my 14-year-old self. As he drove by, I could see that his pants were down to his knees. He was masturbating.
I was pissed and felt fierce in my disgust of being the unbeknownst object of his desires. “I’m 14-years-old!” I said under my breath.
“You are so gross!” I shouted as he drove off.
I kept walking to work, my face flushed with anger at the memory. I told my waitressing comrades-in-arms the story upon arrival and our young teenage indignation mixed as we prepared to serve steaming bowls of wonton soup.
I later told the story to my mother. “You did the right thing,” she said. “Always trust your instincts.”
Fast-forward 30 years.
Today, as a 44-year-old mother, I do my best to honor my instincts and pass on the basic tenets (minus overt religious intensity) that I learned growing up in that small, Utah town. I tell my son the following: Observe your surroundings. Trust in your strength and wisdom. Trust your instincts. Your body belongs to you. Be fearless in seeking out support.
Such timeless wisdom doesn’t change. But much has changed across the parenting landscape in the last three decades.
My parents would never have referred to their parenting style as “free-range” – such a designation hadn’t yet been applied to chickens let alone parents. Today, parents face ridicule, and potentially legal obstacles, should they “allow” their children to go to the park alone or walk home from the school bus stop sans adult.
Certainly, our communities are more fragmented, making a walk to school more precarious. Our constant access to all sorts of information via screen devices inspires a hyper-vigilance. (Of course, I would have called my mom immediately had I had a cell phone that afternoon at 14. I wish I had been able to videotape the man driving away and offer it to the police.)
Nonetheless, as we do our best to navigate our new digital, interconnected, though siloed, reality and wrestle with the free-range parenting debate, we would be wise to remember the following:
The vast majority of people who abuse children are known and loved by the children they harm – and hence they are often known and trusted by those children’s parents. According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network): “Of sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement, 93 percent of juvenile victims knew the perpetrator.” Free-range parenting practices do not increase the risk of sexual abuse by those we know, trust, and love.
What is proven to reduce the risk of the “terrible things” “sick people” do (as my mother would say) is the application of best practices with regard to preventing abuse. Setting up a family dynamic wherein there are “no secrets” and believing children when they do come forward with stories of harm are central to keeping children safe. For example, it was my childhood babysitter, not a stranger watching me walk to work, that brought harm into our family home. Upon my disclosure, my mother’s response was swift and protective.
As Feather Berkower, founder and creator of “Parenting Safe Children” notes: "What I have learned from adult sexual abusers is that the biggest deterrent to child sexual abuse are parents who are paying careful attention to the people their children spend time with, who are willing to speak up on behalf of their children's safety and who have a large presence in their children's lives."
A child doesn’t need to be walking down a street alone to encounter predatory individuals. Even if a parent drives her or his child to various destinations every day, the cellphone in a child’s hand potentially offers much more direct and dangerous access to those who are sexually aroused by pre-pubescent and adolescent bodies than my walk alone to and from work at a Utah Chinese restaurant ever did. Our free-range parenting debate may be missing the point here, for a whole new digital world exists. Nonetheless, the same basic, empowering, and honest conversations that help children navigate real-life childhood need to be employed as children today traverse digital landscapes alone.
Wherever we may fall on the free-range parenting spectrum – whether we drive our children each and every day, or offer up our safety reminders as they walk out the door – we can speak up for our children’s well-being. We can be a positive and loving example of what it means to honor gut instincts whether encountering family, friends, neighbors or strangers. We can employ and frequently reinforce our family’s stay safe rules. Finally, parents can nurture their children’s budding independence and still, as Berkower affirms “have a large presence in their children's lives.”
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