A Gated Community. A 6-year-old Outside for a Moment. Safe?

Hi Folks — Here’s a nice story from Leslie in Georgia, and a response from her friend that has me shaking my head. Is NOTHING safe enough? NOTHING? Not the most normal, delightful, sane, sweet  slice of childhood, as dangerous as a daisy? To many Americans, the answer is simply nope, nothing IS safe enough. Next question please. – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Wanted to share a quick Free Range victory…
Background: we live in a gated “country club” community, on a quiet street off the main avenue. There are very few kids on our street for my six-year-old to play with, but recently I’ve met a mom on our street who has four kids– one two weeks younger than mine.
Yesterday, my son and I were walking home from his tennis lesson when we saw a few of these kids–unsupervised!!– in the yard four houses down from our house. They looked to be having fun, and I asked my son if he wanted to stay and play. He looked apprehensive and told me, “I don’t know, it’s getting late!” (It was 5 p.m.). (I know– when I was a kid, this would have been a completely normal thing to do, but you know how it is these days!) The other six-year-old ran inside to ask his mom if James could stay and play, and soon Mom came out and said it was fine. I cheerfully waved to my son and told the other mom just to send him home (ALONE! UP THE STREET–FOUR HOUSES!) in an hour. I was a bit nervous… she would either say, “Okay, great!” or she would go inside and call Child Protective Services.
I held my breath and waited.
She paused. Then she said, “Okay!” I trotted back to my house and began getting dinner ready…in peace and quiet… knowing my son was actually playing outside down the street. It was fabulous– for both of us.
A few minutes after six, I saw a strange car go up by my house and I paused… did someone grab my kid on his way home? I knew the odds were likely on par with his being attacked by zombies, but the thought still crossed my mind. Mad at myself, I called the other mom just to tell her to shoo him home. She said, “They had a great time, he should be about back by now.” Sure enough… he was trotting through the front yard, sweaty and smiling. He made it. I told the other mom and she said she was glad to know he was back. I don’t know if she thinks I’m nuts or if she thought I’d taken a risk or if she’s Free-Range or not… but a good time was had by all, no one was abducted, and my son LOVED coming home on his own. And I can’t wait for our next opportunity!
But…I told a helicoptering friend of mine about his four-house-walk, and she told me I was crazy. “Oh my GOODNESS,” she said. “You just kill me. Anything could have happened!”
Something did! My son now has a bit more confidence and a new friend.  – Leslie
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Gated but…is it safe enough?

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35 Responses to A Gated Community. A 6-year-old Outside for a Moment. Safe?

  1. Mike November 7, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    “Anything can happen”… start listing the most outlandish things possible. Yes, they COULD happen!

    An earthquake could open the ground beneath his feet, plunging him to his doom!

    A meteorite could land on his head!

    A gas main beneath the street could explode in a giant fireball!

    An elephant could escape from a nearby zoo / circus, trampling him!

    Etc!

    And So Forth!

    Everyone of those are things that could happen, but realistically, never will. Ask them in a breathless, “omg the world is ending” way and see how the paranoid nitwit responds. Should be fun!

  2. Donna November 7, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    Right, anything truly can happen. Also in Georgia last week, a toddler was put in a coma after being struck in the head by a falling limb while playing outside – fully supervised – at daycare. Should we ban trees? Playing outside? Daycare?

    Or maybe just except that life is unpredictable but most kids play outside without being abducted or struck by falling tree limbs.

  3. tdr November 7, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    I just hate that normal behavior like a kid playing at his neighbor’s house has been shoved outside the mainstream so far that it is considered noteworthy by the likes of us.

  4. Filioque November 7, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

    My favorite response: “Yes, anything can happen, but it almost never does.”

  5. SKL November 7, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    “Anything can happen. The kid could get heart disease, diabetes, paranoia, or just a depressing body image – you never know! That’s why I send her out to play.”

  6. liz November 7, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

    Sometimes I’m sorry these conversations are limited to kids. Reminders to not worry in advance about what “might” happen are important in MANY situations. My dad was very ill three years ago, and my mom did a lot of “what could happen” worrying. We used the same line as Mike, “Yes, and a meteorite could fall on your head,” which at least gave her pause. P.S. My dad is alive and well and just celebrated his 84th birthday!

  7. SKL November 7, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    This reminds me of my own 6yo last Friday. It was a dark, cold, wet night in a big city, and we’d found a new little restaurant in an area with lots of bars and restaurants. It took us a while to find it because it had no lighted sign and its facade was under construction.

    My kid was being a little piss-ant throughout the meal. As we were getting ready to go and she did something obnoxious for the nth time, I grabbed her hard by the shoulder. She took offense and marched out the door and partway down the street. There she stood, in the cold wet dark, alone under a scaffold, too stubborn to let me know that she’d rather be warm and dry.

    I let her stew in her juices as I moved along at my normal pace. However, she was never out of my sight.

    When we got outside, my friend told her, “don’t ever go outside alone, someone could steal you and hurt you!” Ugh.

    Nothing bad happened, other than the sensational warning at the end.

  8. Linda November 7, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    test comment

  9. Smatsy November 7, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    I am happy to report that on my block on a medium-to-quiet residential street in Seattle, all the kids run from house to house and converge in the alley to play unsupervised pretty much every evening.

    Their ages range from about 7 to 11, and we’re talking about at least four households/families. So it isn’t all doom and gloom everywhere!

  10. Kristen S November 7, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    My favorite exchange from “Finding Nemo”:

    Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
    Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
    Marlin: What?
    Dory: Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

  11. Sharon November 7, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

    I remember the first time I let my daughter take the elevator in the condo alone. She dropped another child home and came back again. She was stopped by an adult who asked does your mom know where you are. She said yes and then the adult went back to her business and my daughter went back to hers.

    I often get stopped in the elevator if I don’t have my daughter just because they want to know if she is at a birthday party. It is nice to have good neighbors who watch over us.

  12. Kara Nutt November 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

    I’m sure it would horrify helicopter parents to know that my child has played outside (unsupervised, but within ear shot) since he was 2 1/2 and that now at 5 his 6 year old friend walks a block to our house (by himself) every morning and I kick them out to run the 2 blocks to school (by themselves) and my son returns home after school (again by himself) . I am trying to raise him to be able to make accurate risk assessments and decisions.

  13. Maggie November 7, 2012 at 7:34 pm #

    The fact that the community is gated is irrelevant. There seems to be a common perception that living in a gated community or in military housing is safer. It isn’t necessarily so. Somebody who would harm a child could very well buy a house in that community, or even be a military member or dependent. What we need to realize is that the world in general is pretty safe. Not *just* the little part where we lock ourselves away behind a fence.

  14. Fuchsia November 7, 2012 at 7:56 pm #

    When my youngest sister was a child (she’s 10 years younger them me) she lived in a townhouse complex. There were lines of houses with a main parking area in the middle. We thought the kids how to look for traffic and make sure it was safe to cross. Then when a child wanted to visit another house both parents would go out on the steps and wave and then watch the child go out, check for cars and cross safely. When it was time to go home, the parent would phone over and we’d repeat in reverse. It was awesome! The kids had the freedom to visit and the parent’s didn’t have to walk them over. And no one ever got hit by a car cause we taught the kids how to check for cars before they crossed.

    This same complex was double sided so there was a long hallway running down the middle with all the houses backing on to it. This was the kid playzone! There was always a pack of kids playing there. And no one ever had any issue with it. It was a locked space where you had to live there to get in. People knew their neighbors and everyone kept an eye on things. If there was a problem, the kids got a parent and solved the problem. It was, and still is great. Last time I was visiting, there was a pack of kids playing in the hallway and having a blast.

    I am so glad that my sister got to grow up there. She is not a confident young woman who is comfortable navigating her city. She also has enough street smarts to pay attention and avoid trouble. Why? Because we taught her how to! Because she had the chance to try and learn.

  15. linvo November 7, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

    SKL, stuff like that makes me shake my head in disbelief too. It is one thing to be unable to control your own irrational fears. But to subject a young child to them borders on abuse.

    I remember hearing a mother warn her preschooler – who was like 3 metres away from her – not to duck behind the bench and very briefly out of her sight because “Someone will take you”. Not even ‘might’, but ‘will’. And I felt so very sorry for the poor little tyke. Of course by the time she reached 6, she would’ve been used to her mother crying wolf and possibly turned into a very reckless child. But it must have an effect to always be subjected to that sort of negativity about the world you live in.

    On a positive note, my daughter and I ended up going to a classmate’s house for Halloween. In a new development that turned out to be populated mostly by families with kids. And I was so very pleased to see the 8yo guide my daughter out the back gate and round the block without even having to ask his mother, who assured me it was a very safe neighbourhood.

  16. hineata November 7, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

    @Mike – you forgot zombie attack, Yetis and being eaten by wolves – rabid wolves, no less.

    Personally I am waiting for a child walking four houses around here to be eaten by bears, which would be truly noteworthy, because there are no bears here at all……unless you count the Malaysian sun bear at the zoo.

  17. Nanci November 7, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

    This reminds me of a story a friend told. She has a boy that is 3. They live in a nice little subdivision that has a playground just down the street, and across it. Last summer her son was out front playing with a friends daughter who was only 2. The mom has a new baby but was keeping an eye out on the toddlers in the driveway. Suddenly both kids were gone. She looked all around the house and couldn’t find them. She ran down to the park and there they were playing. She started to scold her son for taking off to the playground without an adult when he said to her “mom, it was okay, I held her hand when we crossed the street” :)

  18. Michelle November 7, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

    SKL, the only thing that upsets me more than people who try to tell me how to parent are people who take it upon themselves to parent MY kids. It makes me FURIOUS! I had a friend visiting, and we were all walking to the park. My 10yo (might have been 9 at the time) was acting like a brat because he didn’t want to go. So I told him to go home. Then my friend stepped in and actually told my son NOT to go home, because he should “never be out of your mother’s sight!” I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. The nerve!

    Of course, this is the same friend who told me that I shouldn’t let my kids eat donuts at church because they’d get diabetes. Yeah, diabetes from eating one donut, once a week.

    Sharon, I am glad you live in a place where people look out for each other. But am I the only one who thinks it’s weird that, whenever I go anywhere without my kids and I see someone I know, they ALWAYS ask where the kids are? Why on earth would I take my kids every single place I go? Especially since there are two parents in this family, so I still wouldn’t have to take my kids to the grocery store on a Saturday even if I did think they needed to be supervised by an adult every second of the day.

  19. Tsu Dho Nimh November 7, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    Good grief … my niece’s oldest children (11-ish? twins) are walking 3 miles to the gas station every day to buy gas for the generators because they still don’t have power to their house in NJ. And 3 miles back, pulling their old wagon with 20 gallons of gas in it for their family and the neighbors, too.

    ALONE! They even pump their own gas. And pay for it with cash.

    Then they are spending several hours a day on helping clean up the storm damage and a few more keeping up with their schoolwork … falling into bed at dark, happy and useful and exhausted.

  20. Fuchsia November 7, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    “SKL, the only thing that upsets me more than people who try to tell me how to parent are people who take it upon themselves to parent MY kids. It makes me FURIOUS! I had a friend visiting, and we were all walking to the park. My 10yo (might have been 9 at the time) was acting like a brat because he didn’t want to go. So I told him to go home. Then my friend stepped in and actually told my son NOT to go home, because he should “never be out of your mother’s sight!” I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. The nerve! ”

    That would make me livid! I would most likely tell the person to mind their own business and then tell my child to do as I had told them. I refuse to have someone else’s nerosis inflicted on my child! And if my friend had a problem with that I am not sure how long they would remain my friend! Seriously, doesn’t disrespect my parenting! I don’t disrespect the parenting of others!

    A friend of mine has a daughter who is very cautious, timid even. There are many things that her mom does with her that I would not do with my daughter (like hovering)! Because they are very different kids. My daughter is a risk taker and there are things that I do that she would never do with her daughter (like backing off)! Because they are very different kids. We have had to find a way to respect each others parenting styles and the differing needs of our daughters. If we have discussions or disagree about these differences we do it out of earshot of the kids. The kids don’t need to hear their mom get overruled. That is downright disrespectful AND confusing to the child. It just isn’t fair.

  21. John November 7, 2012 at 10:46 pm #

    The more you do this the easier it gets. My oldest has been playing outside unsupervised, in the front yard since he was 4 (early last year). Later that summer we set up boundaries that he wasn’t allowed past. One is a white sidewalk square about 3 houses down and the other is a particular tree about 4 houses in the other direction.

    He has also been allowed to cross the street on his own since last year as he has two friends that live in the houses directly across from us. He is a very independent little guy and he’s scary smart, so I have no doubt that he will be just fine outside alone.

    We have a two year old that has also played out in the front yard alone (generally when his older brother is out also). He knows to stay away from the road and loves being out there to push his little car back and forth down the sidewalk.

    Keep up practicing independence! It’s very rewarding :)

  22. backroadsem November 8, 2012 at 12:49 am #

    It seems kids no longer even know how to play unsupervised! It’s not uncommon at my office for parents to do scout work right there, which can take awhile. We have a toy area set up that usually entertains most kids for at least 10-15 minutes. The other day, a mother came in with her two boys, sat down at the computer to do some work, and the two boys stared at the toy area, confused, then began to pester their mother. Now, granted, these could have just been two bratty boys who weren’t interested in our playtime offerings, but the exchange (oft-repeated) between mother and sons suggested this was a brand-new experience for all involved. It was as if these kids couldn’t play without mom watching over them!

  23. KMary November 8, 2012 at 1:04 am #

    Michelle, I chuckled at your response. Just a few days ago, I mentioned this phenomenon to my husband who didn’t really get what I was saying because it doesn’t seem to happen to him. On the fairly rare occasion that I meet some of my childless friends for a drink or dinner one or more of them always ask me where my kids are…uh, it’s 10 pm and I’m at a bar, so I didn’t bring them with me…

    Geez, where do they think my kids are? (they’re 2 and 4, by the way). The answer is always the same: at home in bed with my husband there. Maybe they’re just making conversation, but I always find it weird.

  24. Havva November 8, 2012 at 2:19 am #

    @ KMary, in all likelihood it is just conversation. My sister and I live in the same town and when my parents are in town they bounce between houses and I always spend some time working during these visits. When I go into the office the old grandpas always ask where my daughter is. Weather they hear that she is home with my parents, or at my sisters, or off at daycare the response is always a smile and light conversation.
    In other contexts I just say “Oh, she is getting some daddy time.” Usually leads to a discussion of activities she enjoys.

  25. Havva November 8, 2012 at 4:21 am #

    This weekend I was at my niece’s 6th birthday party. One of the first moms to arrive made a lovely free range request. That she wanted my sister to “just” let the girl leave on her own at the end of the party. (She lived next door.) So sweet, so simple. My sister readily said “no problem.”

    This must have been a first time, because the girl was so excited. She enjoyed the activities well enough, but every time activities were switched she asked if it was time yet, if she could walk home by herself yet, lots of emphasis on by herself. Never before have I seen a happy kid begging to leave before cake and ice cream were served.

    Well when it came time for the girl to walk home, the house, yard and street was thick with parents picking up kids. (My sister’s social circle is quite punctual.) But, my sister asked the girl to wait for some designated person to be able to watch her walk next door. I remembered what the parents here said about being annoyed at getting overruled by other parents when they judged and communicated that their child was ready to walk alone. But my sister doesn’t react well to contradiction. None of the other parents volunteered, so I (being the normal kid walker/ axillary wrangler) just suggested to my sister I could do it soon, if strictly necessary, just not now. Sister went about her business. And I turned away to fiddle with gift bags. Our excited little walker waited about 5 seconds before she slipped out the door and walked home. I was actually watching, just pretending not to so I saw her go. But having heard her mother’s very clear direction, I didn’t feel the need to stop her, or even look out the window. The yard was swarming with people who knew this girl and her family. What could possibly go wrong that my standing outside would avert? My sister didn’t fret after the girl left. Perhaps she was just putting on a show about it, in front of the other parents. She is sensitive to social pressure.

    I have no doubt the girl was thrilled, and happy when she got home. I’m glad she got to go without a designated watcher, just like she and her mother intended.

  26. gap.runner November 8, 2012 at 5:22 am #

    Yes, anything can happen. The child could make it home safely. Imagine that!

  27. Katrin from Frankfurt November 8, 2012 at 9:48 am #

    @Fuchsia: I actually sent my daughter (turning 8 next week) home from a walk in our neighbourhood because she kept on nagging all the time. I gave her my key, she went home and my husband and I finished our walk together with her little sister.

  28. Cynthia812 November 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    We had a free range moment Tuesday. Our county ran out of paper ballots by 10AM, so we unexpectedly had a 2 1/2 hour wait at the polls (people who came after work waited up to 5 hours). With my 5yo, 3yo, 10mo old, and later my 6yo who was dropped off there by a friend after school.The room we were in had a door directly outside, so I let my 5 and 3 year olds play outside on the sidewalk pretty much the whole time. No one said anything negative to me about my kids being out of my sight, or about me leaving the baby in the stroller to take a peek at them periodically. They would come in once in a while to get a new book, and thankfully behaved themselves beautifully the whole time. If only I could get them to behave so well in church. Anyway, I love my community.

  29. Christine November 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    I’m so jealous. We moved from a safe out of the way neighborhood in a medium sized city to a safe out of the way neighborhood in a large city. We went from The kids running from house to house (and coming home when the streetlights came on) to “Oh my gosh! I couldn’t possibly let your child walk 7 houses down on her own. She has to cross a street!” Yeah, a street that end in a cul-de-sac that is hardly ever traveled and we taught her how to cross the street when she was 3.

    We just built this amazing tree house with a pulley system so the kids don’t have to lug toys up and down the ladder (so very safe) and a pole to slide down so they don’t have to back down the ladder in the middle of the night (in case of a camper needing to go potty) but I’m sure in this neighborhood it will still be dangerous. I mean, they could get caught in the rope and hang themselves and since I don’t watch them every minute I won’t know. Or someone could not notice the cutout and just fall down through the hole in the railing instead of grabbing the pole laying bleeding and broken on the ground which I again wouldn’t notice because, gasp, I’m using this time to get caught up on something useful like laundry rather than worrying about every little catastrophe. Oh, yeah and it’s actually in the trees so a branch could fall through the open spaces and knock someone unconscious.

    I wish I could figure out how to convince people in our neighborhood that things are safe-for crying out loud we have about 10 sherriff’s deputies that live there with their families. If anyone knows a safe neighborhood it would be law enforcement. Sadly my child will be lonely stuck outside in the front yard on days when it’s too nice to be stuck indoors.

  30. Emily November 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    What a nice story. If I ever have kids, I plan on “free-ranging” them, even if we live in a normal, non-gated neighbourhood. Then again, I also plan to move back to Australia, where it’s normal to see kids out and about on their own anyway.

  31. Betsy November 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    I wish I could let my 6 year old play in the front yard by himself (I could let his older sister at that age). He promises he wouldn’t leave our yard, but his ADHD makes him so impulsive that he would follow someone walking a dog down the street (and I would feel badly for interrupting their walk while trying to shake this hyper-friendly child who never stops talking!). I hope he wouldn’t dart across the generally quiet street, but I can’t be sure. On the bright side, we know many of our neighbors now (I think the whole street probably knows him at least slightly) b/c he has rung their doorbell (with Dad in tow) to talk to them and try to get inside their house. If he slipped away I would know that he was talking to someone in the neighborhood, and go find him. I never worry about him being kidnapped; I always think of that old O.Henry story The Ransom of Red Chief where the kidnappers are so distracted by the pistol of a kid that they pay the parents to take him back!

  32. bobca November 8, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    I really liked this story. It reminded me that we have over-worried people in our “gated” community. They recently had “gate committee” meetings to look into making the gate more secure.

    Interestingly, there is no fence around the neighborhood, so how secure could it actually be?

    Of course, if I ever mentioned the lack of a fence to these folks, they would have all paying for one…crazy!

  33. Captain America November 9, 2012 at 5:19 am #

    If we had more kids, there’d be more kids to play with.

  34. Kim Kimble November 9, 2012 at 7:46 am #

    Recently I had a friend whose child needed some minor surgery. She was in a panic about a possible unexpected reaction to the anesthesia. I suggested she buy a lottery ticket on the way to the hospital. I asked her if she thought she would win the big jackpot. She was sure she wouldn’t. I said your daughter isn’t going to have an adverse reaction either. They actually bought the ticket on the way and she said it helped. Maybe we should all buy lottery tickets for the big power ball.

  35. tdr November 9, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    I think Captain America makes a good observation. I wonder if there is a correlation between dropping birthrates and increasing neurosis about child “safety”.