Unaccompanied Minors

One mother-to-be seeks the elusive balance between keeping her child safe and instilling a true sense of independence.

July 2013

In 2008, New York Sun columnist Lenore Skenazy wrote about letting her nine-year-old son, at his request, ride the subway and bus alone across Manhattan and Queens to their home. She armed him with a MetroCard, a map, and some cash, and he was back in her arms within an hour. Her account of her son’s trek made national news and earned her the moniker of America’s Worst Mom. It also won her a book deal to write Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry).

Of the 797,500 children who were reported missing in 1999, 115 of them were abducted by a stranger or mere acquaintance who took the child more than 50 miles away with the intent to kill, demand ransom, or keep them forever. That’s one kid per nearly 7,000 cases. And from 1998 to 2008, the number of missing children in Colorado—despite the advent of the Information Age–fueled impression that such kidnappings are rampant and random—has actually dropped almost 27 percent.

It turns out the world isn’t much different than when I started kindergarten in the early ’90s. Dr. Harley Rotbart—professor and vice chair at the University of Colorado and Children’s Hospital Colorado, father of three adult children, and author of No Regrets Parenting—says although threats to kids today haven’t changed much from a few decades ago, what’s really different now are parenting styles. “I think we are frame-shifting by three or four years in parenting,” Rotbart says. “What you used to let an 11-year-old do, you now let a 14-year-old do. They’ll still get to ride their bikes to soccer; they’ll just be a little older when they do it. A 14- or 15-year-old knows who not to talk to and won’t fall for the lost-puppy trick. The dangers of society have frame-shifted our acquisition of street smarts, but they’ll still acquire them as long as we aren’t still Bubble-Wrapping 15-year-olds.”

Parents should determine their kids’ maturity and awareness of their environment, Rotbart says, to predict how they’ll handle potential threats. This comes with time and familiarity with everything from children’s surroundings to their own limitations. “You need to spend enough time with your kid to truly know your kid,” Rotbart says. “If you do that, you’ll know if your 11-year-old is really 11, 13—or nine. You’ll know that because you’ll know your kid. You’ll know your kid’s friends. You’ll know where your kid ranks in street smarts and common sense compared to his or her friends at that age.”