In 2008, journalist Lenore Skenazy created a major controversy when she let her son Izzie find his way home from Bloomingdale's with a subway map, and cash, but no phone. Called "America's worst mom," she became an advocate of "free range kids" in her blog and book of that name. I read Skenazy's book for an academic project I am doing on the idea of neglect -- what I am calling a fantasy of neglect -- in literature and film about and for children. Reading it, I have become aware of my own helicopter parent tendencies -- my inability to give my kids the freedoms I had when I was their age. Like most people my age, I remember leaving my house on a summer morning and telling my mother I'd be home at dinner. In between, I might go to organized activities at the park (gimp, plaster of Paris, kickball), hang out in the woods, wander the neighborhood, go to a friend's house, or walk to the store. I never had a problem beyond the usual kid stuff of being hassled by other kids, yelled at by neighbors . My kids, by contrast, have never walked down the street by themselves. They still don't ride bikes alone and, when they bike with us, we use tandems because biking across highways and in city traffic is too risky for little bicyclists. Reading "Free Range Kids," I have wanted and tried to give my kids little freedoms -- on our recent trip, we let the kids wander the cruise ship alone, and get lost, using in-ship phones to contact us when they got worried. I stopped walking them into school and try to give them more responsibility in the house.
Today, when I read about the murder of Leiby Kltezky (see link above), my heart sank. Here were parents doing exactly what I wanted to do -- letting their kid have some small independence by walking part of the way home from day camp. They showed him the route, rehearsed it with him, and still he got confused. Stopping to ask for help, one would hope that most of the time the person asked would not turn out to be a psycho, but in this case, he chose the wrong person, or was chosen by him. I shudder to think of whatever happened between their initial contact and the discovery of his dismembered body two days later. I feel terrible for the parents. They were not irresponsible but trying to let the boy grow, and feel some freedom. Now, though, they will carry the terrible weight of their decision and now those of us who might want to give our kids freedom, which is also a way of giving ourselves freedom, will feel unable and will hover more closely than ever.