Department

Unaccompanied Minors

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

July 2013

My fifth thought after seeing the test results on October 27, 2012: All I want is for them to be able to ride their bikes up and down the street, play at the park, and sprint home at dusk to tell me about their adventures.

The possibility of two-wheeled access to almost everything in our self-centered stratosphere is what originally lured my husband, Lyle, and me to a west Denver neighborhood 18 months earlier. He could bike to physical therapy school at Regis, and I could pedal around Sports Authority Field at Mile High and down to my LoDo office faster than I could stop-and-go through the Colfax Avenue traffic lights.

We could walk to Highlands Square or stroll down 32nd Avenue toward LoHi, where we’d grab a drink on one of the fabulous rooftops or an ice cream cone from Little Man. Our new home had a small yard—perfect for our two wheaten terriers—and Sloan’s Lake was minutes away.    

I could hear the tension in my dad’s voice when I asked for his opinion about our adopted home base, and a subsequent Google Earth search of the area started to make me concerned. Our house was actually pretty far from the renovated homes closer to Highlands Square: The tiny, two-bedroom duplex backed up to a dilapidated row house that seemed to have some less-than-permanent residents ducking in and out. The park across the street had a playground—only it was lined with splintered wood posts and paint-peeled rails. Lyle doweled our windows and ensured me that no one was getting in unless they broke glass. And if that happened, the intruder would have to face my tough, Wyoming-born husband.  

By last fall, we’d been living in our house for more than a year, and our neighborhood was improving. Investors were buying the run-down properties and more young couples were moving in. The suspicious row house behind us had been scraped and rebuilt into something more modern. The park was getting a full makeover. Yet none of this would change the new reality I faced last October 27.

Thoughts one through four as I digested the joyous results:

1. Oh my God! I broke into my happy dance as my dogs watched, bewildered.
2. Should I run out to tell Lyle, who’s fixing our makeshift fence in the backyard, or enjoy my little secret for two more minutes? I decided to wait.
3. Now that I’ve told him he’s going to be a dad, is he going to pass out? He didn’t. (In fact, he’s had a proud-papa perma-grin for almost nine months now.)
4. But, wait. If we stay in our perfect-for-a-young-couple, close-to-all-the-action neighborhood, I may be forced to be a helicopter parent. I want kids covered in dirt and grass stains, not Bubble Wrap.

As the initial shock lingered, my mind reached back to riding bikes with my brother to our Chicago-area elementary school playground, playing after-school pickup roller hockey games two blocks over, and building tepees in the forest behind our suburban cul-de-sac. I made a mental checklist of things my future child wouldn’t be able to do in our current neighborhood. Ride bikes to the park? Nope. Meet friends at Sloan’s Lake for pickup soccer? Not without me trailing behind. Have an unsupervised squirt-gun fight in our yard? Maybe, if we weren’t so close to Federal and Colfax.

When I was growing up, going anywhere without parents was a privilege. My first memory of my brother, Nick, and I walking alone, to a nearby Dairy Queen, was also my first memory of the word that structured all future excursions: trust. I was nine; Nick was 18 months younger. We’d walked to and from elementary school many times, but we’d never enjoyed our very own outing. Sitting in the shade of the garage after a fierce game of one-on-one hoops, we decided to ask our parents if we could go on a DQ Blizzard run.

Their answer was frank: “Walk straight to Dairy Queen. Stay with each other and check in when you get back. We trust you. Don’t lose it, because it’s tough to earn back.”

They’d taught us all about “stranger danger” and how to cross a busy intersection, and they made it clear that if we wanted to make that trip alone again, we should eat our ice cream on the walk home and not linger at the strip mall. The jaunt was spectacularly uneventful; we were back to driveway basketball before our chocolatey cookie dough treats could melt. This earned us longer trips to the library, the neighborhood pool, and a nearby creek. The trust of our parents, along with reminders that a few poor decisions could extinguish it, empowered us both.

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.”

My baby isn’t even sleeping in his or her comfy, forest-themed nursery yet; as of this writing, I don’t even know which gender my firstborn will be. All I know is that Lyle and I now have only a few more days to cling to the most control we’ll have over our child for the rest of our lives. Where I go, my baby goes. And even though I don’t yet have to worry about some creep snatching my child out of the backyard, I’m already planning the changes I want to make to provide at least a shot at the type of childhood I had: one of exploration within the boundaries, not timid confinement behind brick walls.

Some prefer to raise kids in the city; others would rather be tucked away in suburbs where minivans outnumber taxis and city buses. Lyle and I will probably trade our nine-minute bike ride to Coors Field for a place where our kid—and hopefully, kids—can bounce between neighbors’ homes, knocking on doors to see who can come out to play. A neighborhood where I can watch from my back deck on warm summer nights while they play moonlit games of capture the flag between backyards. Maybe I’ll even join in.

Either way, I’ll be waiting for them when they run home—sweaty, covered in dirt, and sporting gap-toothed grins—to ask if they can play for just a few more minutes. I’ll try to recall those first few thoughts I had when I realized I was going to be a mom, and I’ll send them back out, knowing that the simple trust I dole out is a gift they’ll always remember.