Children and Danger

Is it okay to let young kids handle sharp objects? Is it safe for seven-year-olds to walk alone and to play outside without adult supervision? The majority of people in our society would say no. However, we cannot supervise our children forever. We need to stop sheltering them and start teaching them to handle danger responsibly so that they become more mature and more independent regardless of age.

A Little Bit of My Story

I walked to school by myself around the time I was six or seven. Moscow, the city where I grew up, stands no comparison to most American cities and suburbs. In Moscow of my childhood (and it’s still the case today) drivers did not yield to pedestrians, police cars did not patrol every corner, and there were no school speed limits and no smiling school crossing ladies. Oh, and back then kids didn’t have cell phones to call police or home in case of emergency.

My road to school laid through backyards of old apartment buildings, where drunkards routinely hung out. I walked past construction sites where workers whistled and yelled inappropriate remarks at young girls who were passing by. A few times I encountered creepy people, and once I was even followed by a stranger on my way from school.

My parents never discussed with me what to do in dangerous situations. Local police never came to our school to teach safety. Yet I always relied on my intuition and gut feelings to avoid getting in danger. I educated myself and became quite street-smart not because I was particularly bright but because I had the will to stay safe and I had one advantage over many of today’s children: I was not sheltered or overprotected.

I know many people who avoid discussing crime and violence in the presence of children because they fear that children are too fragile and impressionable. Yesterday my husband described to me how he was sitting in line at a hair salon discussing recent tragic church shooting with other patrons, and a mom with a three-year-old child demanded that everyone stop talking about it in the presence of her son. This is just one example of how parents shelter their children a bit too much. Does being sheltered really help children prepare themselves to face potential real-life violent situations?

How I Taught Myself

When I was growing up, newspapers and TV news were widely available in my home. I started reading newspapers soon after I was able to read. The “Crime” section was particularly easy for a young reader like me because it contained short, easily digestible snippets of text – those brief descriptions of tragic news that happened in my large city every day. I quickly learned that the world around me was not very safe and that there were plenty of bad people who meant harm.

While reading the crime news, I made it a habit to quickly analyze each situation and to play in my mind how I would have tried to avoid it happening to me. While walking, I taught myself to look around and to notice what was going on near me. Later, I started buying and reading books about self-defense, which led me to my current interests in martial arts and in defensive handgun training.

Such self-education and mental preparedness helped me develop intuition and common sense necessary to avoid the dangers I sometimes encountered. For example, when I was followed home by a stranger I was able to quickly detect that I was being followed and changed my route to turn onto a crowded street where I mingled with other pedestrians and went in and out of a few stores to mix with the crowds and to ensure that the stalker would eventually lose sight of me. On another occasion, as I was approaching home on my way from school, I saw a man enter my apartment building whom I had never seen before and who was not one of my neighbors. Back then, most old apartment buildings didn’t have door buzzers and anyone could enter. I remembered from my newspaper readings that predators often entered apartment buildings and waited for their victims in dimly-lit hallways, so I waited outside for more than an hour until I saw a familiar neighbor who told me that it was safe and who walked me into the building. I am telling all this to point out that no one taught me these techniques, but I was able to avoid dangers because I read about them and because I mentally prepared myself by planning ahead, which helped me to think clearly and to make decisions even when I was stressed and scared.

I was at a disadvantage because I lived in a society where child safety was not any kind of priority and because I didn’t have a cell phone and could not rely on trusted adults who would discuss these things with me. Imagine how much more we as parents can do to keep our kids safe today, given that nowadays we all have cell phones and child tracking technology, given that our society is generally thoughtful and caring enough to look out for others (especially for kids), and given that our drivers are generally polite and careful and that our police are responsive and helpful. However, relying on technology and help from strangers is not enough. First and foremost, we must teach our children about safety.

How We Teach Our Children About Safety

These are some of the many safety precautions that we teach to our children: while walking or biking outside, always be aware of your surroundings; always notice the people that are around and behind you; always be on alert for suspicious situations; never use any distracting devices such as earphones because earphones prevent you from hearing outside noises and you may not hear a car coming or an attacker approaching. We teach them to never disclose private information to strangers, to avoid dark and unfrequented places, and to be cautious in crowded places as well. We teach them to never stand on the edge of a sidewalk, to always wait till cars stop completely before crossing, to beware of cars backing out of driveways while walking or biking on the street. While at home, we teach them to never open a door without asking who it is and without looking into the peephole. We discuss plans of escape from dangerous situations. We tell them to always run from danger as fast as they can, and if escaping is not possible, we urge them to be ready to resist and to defend themselves, which is one of the reasons why martial arts and fitness training is our topmost unschooling priority. My oldest daughter is currently studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu and my middle son will join her in a few months. Above all, we don’t shelter them from bad news stories. We are open to them about crime and terrorism so they know that real dangers are happening out there and that these dangers should be taken seriously.

Unless my child is in immediate danger, I refrain from taking a dangerous object (such as a hot cup or a sharp knife) away from them or from removing my child out of a potentially dangerous spot if I know I can observe closely and control the situation. I try to use it as a teachable moment and to test their readiness to handle the situation. I come closer so I can observe and intervene if necessary, and I explain to them the danger involved and teach them to handle the object carefully and to behave responsibly. Instead of outright banning my children from doing things, I want them to develop competence and responsibility when dealing with dangerous items and situations. As a result, my intervention is usually not required. My children are gradually learning to be careful and I start trusting them more.

The point is not to have our children live in a constant fear but to teach them to be calmly alert and street-smart and to help them develop mental and physical safety techniques that will become their second nature.

What About the “Free Range” Movement?

Lenore Skenazy, the author of “Free Range Kids” blog, frequently writes about how our schools, parents, and society try to overprotect and shelter children from any possible and potential (and often made-up) troubles using rules and regulations which severely restrict children’s ability to enjoy life and which are in many cases outright ridiculous. I agree that such helicopter parenting does more harm than good.

On the other hand, I have doubts about Lenore’s assertions that the American neighborhoods today are generally much safer and crimes against children are very rare. This may be true, although I do not know for sure and I do not have the reliable statistics, but I suspect that nowadays we are rather dealing with different types of danger than in the past. Today there are more cars, more people who are on mind-altering pills, and there is probably a higher level of terrorism and mass-murder. Even if we assume that crimes against children are rare, after reading Nassim Taleb’s books about randomness and unpredictability I learned that even rare events should be taken seriously, that even if the probability of an event happening is low it can still happen. American neighborhoods may be safer, but there is still a reason why we keep our houses and cars locked at night. No one wants to be in the crime news, and even if the probability of this is low we should still train ourselves and our kids to be mentally and physically prepared.

Also, some neighborhoods are statistically safer than others. Of course, it doesn’t mean that crimes never happen in safe neighborhoods, but, statistically, an affluent suburban community such as Newton, Massachusetts is probably safer than New York City. I doubt that I would let a 9-year-old child ride New York subway alone as Lenore did, but I would see no problem with even younger kids walking alone in Newton. So I think that the degree to which the children can be free-range largely depends on the crime statistics of the neighborhood in which they live.

What’s the Answer?

At what age should children be legally allowed to walk alone? I don’t have the answer, and I think that there’s no defined age because ultimately it depends on the child’s maturity. There are children who are cautious and responsible even at a very young age. Alternatively, I sometimes see high-schoolers texting or listening to music on their earphones while walking alone and being entirely oblivious to their surroundings. If children are sheltered from crime news, if they are not taught self-defense and if they are not trained in cautious and responsible behavior, then they have a higher chance of getting in trouble at any age. No laws, regulations, or public opinion will help determine at what age children are safe to be alone. It all depends on their maturity and on their mental and physical preparedness, and it’s an individual decision that each family needs to make for themselves.