Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone

This is awesome, only because it's so rare to see sanity in these matters:

Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn't strike me as that daring, either. Isn't New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It's not like we're living in downtown Baghdad.

Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn't want to lose it. And no, I didn't trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn't do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, "Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I'll abduct this adorable child instead."

Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.

Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I've told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It's not. It's debilitating -- for us and for them.


39 Responses:

  1. It'd be nice if more parents were that sane.

  2. djinnaya says:

    A child who thinks he can't do anything on his own eventually can't.

    Hell yes! I had to audibly cheer for this. I thought I was the only one. Raising competent adults is not done by keeping them so afraid of the outside world that they never take risks and never move beyond *your* comfort zone. It is about teaching them to find their own comfort zone and to explore the rationality and wisdom of their decisions.

    I can't even begin to tell you how happy this article made me.

  3. buz says:

    I've been having this very argument with my ex over our 12 y/o busing himself around. And during typical after school hours when the buses are full of kids. Despite random and statistically extremely rare events, the biggest threat are other kids - who parents are never worried about.

    There is a ton of data on crime by location, but you cannot yet isolate it down to relevance for your needs. There may be 1269 muggings in your neighborhood last year, but you cannot easily see it graphed by time of day, or victim age, or key info like the victim knew the assailant (bar room brawl stuff, rather than sneaky-rapist-in-the-bushes stuff). You can't easily check how many crimes against children occur between 6 am and 4 pm in the areas your child will travel. - Useful info - no?

    I've always felt that kids were LESS likely (note I said "less") than adults to be killed, assaulted, robbed or even harassed because they are not as often in the same situations that cause, or allow, or make it convenient for a crime to occur. If a child screams "HELP!" people come. But if an adult screams help - they stay in their home, peek out the window and maaaaybe dial 911.

    So my ex hates it, but I allow my son to enjoy all of MUNI's glory. He thinks it's no big deal whatsoever and has no idea what all the fuss is about.

  4. dr_memory says:

    There's a followup article here:


    Beware, the idiots come out of the woodwork in the comments there.

  5. ammonoid says:

    When I was a kid I took public transit everywhere (in DC) and by kid I mean 11-12 upwards. I loved being able to get out of the house and around on my own. It rocked.

    • gargargar says:

      Okay I'm sure that this can quickly become a me-too fest, but I distinctly remember bussing myself home from school as early as nine years old. The only other person doing the same was the girl from East Germany who sat at the pod of desks next to the one I was at. By the time I was eleven and switched schools, there were a large number of kids riding the city bus home after class.
      I have taken university-level classes in transportation where whole lectures were dedicated to how the suburban "don't let Timmy walk to school" architecture of hierarchical roads prevents independent exploration of the adult world and harms all aspects of child development.

      So for me, the cognitive dissonance always triggers the jaw-drop when people argue against letting children actually try to grow up.

      • editer says:

        One of my professors is going to be moving to another city before long, and she said she thought she'd like to live outside town this time where it's quieter, but worried that her kids wouldn't have anyone to play with. Then she realized that they don't have anyone to play with *now*. Everything is scheduled play dates and so on, and no one in the neighborhood spontaneously meets other kids for unstructured fun.

        So hooray for letting the kid just go outside and figure the world out.

      • ammonoid says:

        Actually that reminds me of something - I also walked to school up until the end of the 6th grade. At first with a chaperone (my grandma) and then I walked/biked by myself. No problems.

        I took the bus (city bus) to junior high school. No prob.

        I don't get how in the suburbs walking is *bad*. Seems so backasswards.

        • jace says:

          When I was 7, my parents gave me a key to the house and told me I was expected to let myself in and stay inside until they returned each evening. At 8, I started to skip the school bus and walk home -- despite not previously knowing the route. At 10, I got a public transport bus pass and was expected to ferry myself to school and back. At 12, I was cycling to school.

          All this in an era when nobody in the neighbourhood had even a telephone. My parents trusted me to manage myself. Come to think of it, an age in which such a trust no longer exists is very weird.

  6. See also Mark Morford's article on the tendency to "protect" children from, you know, life:

    There is no such thing as a perfectly innocent life, or childhood, or experience, no such thing as strolling through this world wholly sheltered from, say, everyday trauma, abused puppies, shocking imagery, bad sex or inappropriate fondling or confusing orgasms, and if you insist that there is or that there should be or that this is the way God intended it, it is quite likely you are one violently oversheltered home-schooled virgin and now might be a good time to read a book and buy a vibrator and head into therapy very soon and I can say that without fear of reprisal because, well, you are not reading this column anyway.

    Let's flip it around: There is no human child on the face of the earth who has had some sort of ideally perfect, sex-free, trauma-free, drama-less life by which we should measure all our failures and woes. There is no standard, no perfect score, no idyllic model. And there never was. It's the equivalent of arguing that we are meant to go through the modern world free of raw flesh and sticky blood and parasites, ever struggling to remain clean and pure, when in fact this is the stuff of which we are made. Bacteria and spit and germs? Baby, it's what we are.

  7. uke says:

    I'm sending Ezekiel over right now with a little present.

  8. cattycritic says:

    There are a number of reasons for this hysteria: network news. No, really, I blame this all on network news. This parent is completely right - random violent crime is exceptionally unlikely, and even more unlikely if you're smart about where you go, with whom and when. This is the kind of thing Gavin de Becker was ranting about in The Gift of Fear.

    What parents ought to be very concerned about is this: girls have anywhere from a 20% to a 33% likelihood of molestation, whereas for boys it's about 15%. So basically, if it's not your child, it's probably at least one of your child's friends. This means your child may already within reach of a molester: sexual crime against children it's 90% likely to be someone they know (http://www.yellodyno.com/html/child_molester_stats.html), and 40% of those perpetrators are juveniles. 90% of sexual offenders against children are male.

    I am a victim by the way - male perp, juvenile, babysitter. The only reason he got caught was because my parents had him babysit me and an older little girl who knew about these things and told her parents ('your child may already be in reach of a molester'). I was 4. Thank God for my parents' sane reactions or I'd be in therapy.

    Back on topic: realisticially, the kids riding MUNI and the New York subway aren't in any more danger than their sheltered peers. I'd suggest they are in less danger because the sheltered kids' parents may be overlooking or denying abuse going on right under their noses.

    It would still scare the living hell out of me, but I hope I can be "sane" enough to let my child learn self-reliance like that. It's just a shame nobody gets to ride or walk or take the bus to school any more (ok, I was bullied practically every day middle school, but still).


  9. strspn says:

    This video changed my entire perspective on such things: 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do, by Gever Tulley.

  10. baconmonkey says:

    Nonfamily abductions are rare. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that in 1999, 33,000 children (a rate of .47 per 1,000) were victims of nonfamily abduction. The perpetrator is often a stranger, is more likely to be male, and more often victimizes females. Teenagers are at higher risk for this form of abduction, mostly because these attacks take place when the child is alone and in some type of public area. Most victims of nonfamily abductions are between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, but twelve- to fourteen-year-olds are more likely to be victims of stereotypical kidnappings. Sometimes the perpetrator, or perpetrators, asks for a ransom, but more often the motive in these attacks is sexual. Just less than half of all victims of nonfamily abduction are sexually assaulted. In a very few cases the victims die. A 1997 study by the State of Washington's Office of the Attorney General calls the murder of an abducted child "a rare event."

    In 1999, more than 50,000 children and adolescents were taken by nonfamily members by physical force or coercion for at least one hour.

    Ninety-one percent of nonfamily abductions lasted less than a day, with 29 percent lasting two hours or less.

    203,900 children each year are victims of family abductions, where the child is taken by a noncustodial parent.

    Though where it gets really interesting is the AMBER alert system. in 11 years, only 377 children have been recovered by it. 34 per year, 2.8 per month.

    Since 1997, the AMBER Alert program has been credited with the safe recovery of 377 children.
    How many children are reported missing each year?

    The U.S. Department of Justice reports

    * 797,500 children (younger than 18) were reported missing in a one-year period of time studied resulting in an average of 2,185 children being reported missing each day.
    * 203,900 children were the victims of family abductions.
    * 58,200 children were the victims of non-family abductions.
    * 115 children were the victims of "stereotypical" kidnapping. (These crimes involve someone the child does not know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.)

    so of the 797,500 kids reported missing each year, 34 are recovered by AMBER alerts. you know, 0.004%
    even of the 262,100 legitimate (family & non-fam) abductions, that's still only 0.01% effectiveness.
    in other words, Feel-Good and "for the children" legislation is massively wasteful and ineffective.

    • mysterc says:

      There are 377 parents/families that disagree...
      The AMBER program is the reason we found my niece 3 years ago and subsequently my mom. Everything doesn't come down to numbers.

      • shaggy_man says:

        I'm glad that this program helped your family, and you should certainly be thankful. But with a success rate that low, if all of that effort were used helping people in some *other* way, and then *more* people would be probably able to lodge thankful comments like yours.

  11. msjen says:

    Can that kid be in my next class, rather than the ones who can't even decide what to draw on a piece of paper without adult assistance?

  12. kencf0618 says:

    My parents let me bicycle everywhere when I was a kid (I'd discovered maps). I just had our phone number, some money, and a definite turn-around time. Covered much of the western San Francisco Bay Area that way, including a notable incursion onto what was then Moffett Naval Air Station.. :o

  13. pozorvlak says:

    Dammit, I'm getting envious at everyone else's childhoods, which sound incredibly free and unrestricted in comparison to mine...

    • legolas says:

      Exactly. And funny also how the reasons change: I wasn't allowed to go of our block, then later (can't remember the age) the suburb, for fear of being run over by a car. Oh yeah and 'don't go along with strangers, even if they offer candy'. Then again, no subway where I lived... Didn't take the bus to school beofre I was 15, IIRC, but then again at the time I thought NOT having to out in the cold then ride a busy bus was like all the other kids, was actually a good thing ;-)

  14. boonedog says:

    My cousin has that sign up on the fancy doghouse where her showdogs live. I like it.

    I would be scared to ride the subway by myself in New York because I've never been there and new places make me nervous, so I can't judge whether I'd let my child do that. Plus, my child is only 4 years old. But maaaan, the degree of over-protectiveness with my fellow moms is really high these days. What really drives me nuts is when parents answer and talk for their kids. I've had people want to call CPS on me because I have a pet pitbull (but it's going to *turn on your child any day*!!!) Sigh. I blame the media for most of it because it panders to our current government's need for fear. Well, and then there's also our society's ability to blindly absorb everything the media says.

    • henrytroup says:

      In the "old days" awful things happened - and no one outside of three blocks knew it. Today, an awful thing happens to, say, Madeleine McCann in Portugal - and the whole planet knows about it. Result: real danger is reduced, in most places; perceived danger everywhere is way up.

  15. fnivramd says:

    Even if it was Baghdad, your kid is mostly safe to walk the streets. Nearly everyone will protect a young child in trouble. Assuming they've been taught some basic stuff (traffic safety, where "home" is, etc) and can keep it all straight, then they're probably safer walking through any city in the world than you, their parent would be. The countryside is actually more dangerous for kids, because so many of the dangers are subtle and there are so few passers-by to help if you get into a trouble. It doesn't have to be that abandoned leg-trap in the woods, it can be the shallow river with the unexpectedly strong current, the tide cutting off retreat from the seaside cave, the unmarked ventilation shaft of the abandoned mine - all these are a lot less forgiving than the city streets. Still, we let kids play in the countryside for centuries, and not too many of them fell down wells.

    The most likely "hostile" encounter for young kids is other kids, and as always it's likely to be someone they know. Even then it's usually going to be a muddy face, a bruised arm, a lost shoe, or a busted bike and thus something that can be chalked up to life experience. But those kids are at school together, if they were going to smash your child's skull open with a rock for no good reason, they're as likely to do it in unstructured play at school, or in your back yard, as they are 5km away in an abandoned warehouse.

    I'm speaking from experience here, having been a child, and having had my head whacked with a half-brick found during break at primary school. They just told me to stay away from those kids in future. I guess the average New York mother would have called the police and demanded the thrower be identified and arrested?

    • luserspaz says:

      My grandfather owned about 100 acres of mostly wooded land, and my parents wound up with their own 10 acre plot of that, so I spent most of my childhood playing out in the woods. I'm sure we put ourselves in danger quite often, since we were left to our own devices most of the time, but damn it if we didn't have a good time! I think my mom has pictures of me climbing 25+ feet up in trees out in the yard when I was 10 or so.

  16. from http://www2.csoonline.com/exclusives/column.html?CID=33571

    Here's the paradox that rises from all of this: As an individual and consumer, I like disclosure. I want every corporate and civic entity I place trust in to be accountable. I want journalists and scientists to unearth the risks I'm not being told about. At the same time, while any one disclosure of a threat may be tolerable, or even desirable, the cumulative effect of so much disclosure is, frankly, freaking me out.

    • kyronfive says:

      I find the total paranoia about kids today utterly ridiculous. I was a latch-key kid. I remember walking myself home, letting myself in the house, and waiting for my mom to come home in the 4th grade. And I somehow managed not to die or burn the house down. Today nobody would let a 10-year-old do that.