Parenting and fear

Spring has sprung – sort of – and one thing that means is that my kids are back to riding their bikes to school (as opposed to walking). I do on occasion drive them the few blocks – if there is at least 6 inches of snow, or a monsoon. Pretty much other than that and they are on their own, or rather with the crowd of all the other kids in our community doing the same thing.

Apparently, the fact that our neighborhood kids hoof it to school puts us in the distinct minority.

The federal government reports that today, only about 13 percent of kids get to school under their own steam. In 1970, some 66 percent did! I’ve come across that figure several times, most recently in the Wall Street Journal in a report on how many 2- to 4-year-olds are now being pushed to ride two-wheelers – only, these days there’s nowhere for them to ride because nobody lets their kids, of any age, freely ride their bikes anymore.

What an irony.

I was one of those many 1970s kids who got to school on my own. From kindergarten in one direction to my senior year in high school in the other, I always walked or rode my bike. (Actually, by the time I got to my junior year in high school I got pretty good at talking my mother out of her car several days a week so I could drive. Memo to my kids: not happening.)

In any event, I just refuse to believe that suddenly all over America only expressways exist where once sidewalks did.

Nor are there suddenly child molesters or abductors lurking around every corner. Look, I remember some pretty creepy adults from when I was a kid. Nowadays, at least they’d have a better chance of being behind bars or having a neon sign over their homes. Although knowing my parents, they’d probably have just looked at the sign and said, “Just scoot a little faster past so-and-so’s home, dear.” And abductions? National statistics show that fewer than 200 children a year are abducted by strangers.

(And no, I am not naive – I do get that not everyone has the privilege of living in neighborhoods like mine then and now – involved parents seemingly always on the scene who know each other and each other’s kids.)

Anyway, of course we hear the stories of molestation or abduction, and it’s terrifying, to be sure. But trying to put our kids in hermetically sealed cocoons just can’t be the answer.

We all have rational fears for our kids – mine is water – and irrational fears – mine is the balcony of my father’s apartment, 32 stories up. But do we have to be ruled by them to the detriment of our kids?

The irony is that American children have never been safer and healthier than they are today (except for the fact that too many are fat and at risk for all sorts of awful diseases, partly because they don’t walk or ride bikes enough). And yet, we parents have probably never been as fearful for them as we are today.

Of course I want to protect my kids. I’m a mom. So I’m all for bicycle helmets AND actually making my kids hold onto the handlebars. (Totally uncool when I was a kid. One learned to balance and never touch those bars except to brake – and who did that?) I believe in car seats, and telling my kids which strangers are safe if they need help – store clerks and moms with young kids – and which aren’t – single men. Unfair, I know. Too bad. They know my phone numbers, they only drink juice that has been pasteurized, they wouldn’t dare swim alone, cross a street without looking both ways and, above all, they know to stay off their papa’s balcony.

There’s no question my children lead more protected lives than I ever did, which is not saying a whole lot considering my mother would literally tell us kids to “go play in the street.” (We had great ball games there.)

But one of my biggest fears is raising children who are afraid of their world or, worse, raising children who think the reason they live such protected lives is because they are the center of their world. I just hope I give them enough independence to be confident about their world and rightly see their place in it – even when that’s a little scary for me.

(Betsy Hart is the author of the forthcoming “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids – and What to Do About It.” E-mail her at letterstohart(at)