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NEVER Let Them Walk to School Alone!

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Why are we still debating whether children under the age of 13 should be allowed to walk to and from school alone? Is keeping our children safe really up for debate?

florida girl somer thompson missing

Dr. Michelle Golland: As a clinical psychologist, I often counsel victims of violent crime. Given the risks that children face in our time, it is naïve and simply irresponsible to argue, as Lenore Skenazy does in her book "Free-Range Kids," that because we were all raised in the 1970s in a "free" way, our kids should be as well.

In the '70s, our generation also didn't believe in sex education for our children, and believed that being gay was a "choice" and should be demonized. We also didn't believe domestic violence was a "problem," that the Catholic Church would never put children in harm's way, and seat belts and car seats weren't mandatory. There are many things over the last 40 years that -- through studies, our intelligence, our emotional reactions, and plain mothers' intuition -- became simply obvious at this point in time. One of them is that young children should not be left alone in a public place -- whether it is walking home from school or a friend's house, playing in a park, or playing in the front yard unsupervised. Would any of you even question putting your child in a car seat or forcing them to buckle up when you get into the car? Is that too restrictive? Not free enough for your taste?

I believe what is often the motivator for these "free living" parents is that by allowing their kids to be "independent," it frees up the parents to focus on themselves, and also saves them the cost of child care. The parents are simply choosing their own independence over their child's safety.

I do not agree that depriving our children of the "freedom" to walk home alone from school quells their sense of independence. Children develop a sense of independence in many ways that don't put them at risk. For example, when your kids choose their extracurricular activities, the clothes they wear, how they wear their hair, the décor of their bedroom, or the games the family plays on game night -- this, in my opinion, gives your child a strong sense of independence and power at much less risk. The experience of "independence" is developed across time, and in age-appropriate and safe ways. The argument that allowing a 9-year-old to ride public transportation alone promotes independence is ignorant and irresponsible. My 9-year-old son begs me to stay home alone while I take his sister to dance class. I in no way believe that is his "cry" for independence, or that I should even consider it for a minute to promote his "independence." He is a 9-year-old boy who wants to stay home and play Wii for as long as he can.

By saying this, I am in no way blaming the mother of Somer Thompson -- but I am sure if she could go back in time, she would agree that a 10-year-old, even if told repeatedly never to let your siblings out of your sight, would in real time not be able to control a situation laden with heated emotions. We know there was an argument, and Somer ran off from the pack. We can't expect a 10-year-old to be able to manage an emotional situation such as this because she herself is a child, and will herself be overwhelmed by her feelings -- because, again, she IS A CHILD. Somer's sister will now live with the guilt and pain of this loss and her own sense of responsibility.

I have worked with clients who were "in charge" of their younger brothers and sisters when a tragedy occurred (drowning, being struck by a car, and an abduction), and the pain and impact on their lives is enormous. The conclusion is always this: "Why as a child was I put in the place of being responsible for the safety of my siblings?" I have also discovered that most experts agree that a teenager should not begin babysitting until they are at least 13 years of age and mature. Even then, the guidelines are clear on ages and how many children should be supervised by one teenager. I think we should look to these guidelines for giving children the "freedom" Lenore Skenazy is pushing for. Don't you?

You see, it is about maturity and ability to deal with different contingencies in one's environment. Younger children do not have the brain development to deal with issues like adults do -- it is that simple. They can be manipulated and lured much easier than adults, which is why they are at greater risk.

It is sad that we live in the "at-risk" society that we do. However, as we have seen in the news, there are many, many sex offenders living among us -- and we simply cannot afford to place our kids in harm's way under the guise of "letting them live free."

elizabeth olten

There are two tracks to deal with sexual offenders:

1) Community Information and Protection of Children

This is composed of access to information regarding the location of registered sexual offenders, and includes where they can live within range of schools, libraries, and parks. It also includes the enactment of the Amber Alert system and Megan laws.

I believe we need to take this further. We should have national guidelines for the training of our children in schools on how to be safe and protect themselves as much as possible from sexual predators. We need to create ways for our children to get to and from school with adult supervision.

Our schools should be community centers with access to after-care programs for working parents. It is imperative that we as a society deal with the issue of after-school care in a progressive and aggressive manner.

I do not think that it is paranoia to say that we should provide GPS devices for our children. In the case of Elizabeth Olten, the police were able to locate her body because of her cell phone. There are many GPS devices that you can give to your children that would enable the authorities to help locate your child. Devices can be placed in shoes or in backpacks and could be monitored by the Global Positioning Satellite System immediately. As we know, when a child goes missing, time is of the essence. We place a greater emphasis on locating our cars or our cell phones than our kids. Again, it's a risk-reward issue. To me, it's a no-brainer.

2) Sentencing and Civil Commitment of Child Sexual Offenders

We should all be upset at the differing sentencing guidelines for sexual offenders. I believe we need to make sexual crimes against children a federal offense, which would automatically mandate sentencing guidelines that are uniform for all states.

• Mandatory federal sentences for child sexual abuse should be similar to Wisconsin's tough sexual offender statutes that include the following: "Jessica's Law" legislation (created in memory of Jessica Lunsford, who was kidnapped and killed by a sex offender who did not register in Florida) imposes a minimum 25-year sentence for those convicted of first-degree sexual assault of a child. Another measure passed by Wisconsin lawmakers provides judges with the authority to give life sentences to offenders twice convicted of first-degree sexual assault (the previous maximum was 40 years). With the high rate of repeat offending by child sexual predators, it is imperative that sentencing guidelines are used to protect our children from pedophiles.

• Kansas has enacted the Sexually Violent Predator Act of 1994, which was passed in response to concerns about recidivism rates among sex offenders. Under the law, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, the state can commit individuals who are likely to engage in "predatory acts of violence" due to a "mental abnormality" or "personality disorder." Few confined sex offenders are ever released. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy has followed the issue since that state passed a civil commitment law in 1990. As of December 2004, the Institute reports that 3,493 people have been held for evaluation as sexually violent predators or committed for treatment, and 427 individuals have been discharged or released. This seems like a good alternative to keep sexual predators off the streets, but it is far more expensive than prison. Civil-commitment legislation was introduced in South Dakota as well, but lawmakers decided to create a no-parole provision for certain repeat sex offenders instead.

Given the clear danger of predatory child sexual abusers, as a nation, we must come together and create clear and tough guidelines for repeat child sexual predators. We must educate our children about sexual offenders, and we must wake up to the reality that we can't live as if it is 1970. Sadly, we must wake up and deal with the reality that there are people who look for the "window of opportunity" to take a child, sexually assault them, and throw them away like garbage. These are real risks in the reality of our time. We must take our shoes off at the airports, put our children in car seats, and not allow them to be alone in public places or walk home from school alone. Is it really that much of a "hassle" for us to take these measures? I would not want to be a parent who sits with the pain of having a child taken, assaulted, or even killed -- and know that I placed my child in danger when it could have been avoided.


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32 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous October 28, 2009, 3:56 AM

First, about the car seat thing. here’s an expert from Lenore’s site “At Free Range, we believe in safe kids. We believe in helmets, car seats and safety belts. We do NOT believe that every time school age children go outside, they need a security detail”

Second- The whole free range parents are lazy thing. I’m 14, so I am not a parent, nor will I be for about 15 years, but I don’t thing free range parents are lazy. They work hard to help their kids become well-balanced adults who don’t still live at home when their 40 (unless of course the adult or child needs a caregiver for some reason.) and don’t need mommy and daddy to do everything for them.

Three- Giving your child independence by letting them pick out cloths and stuff- Won’t work. Trust me. You’re a Psychologist, but I’m a kid. Won’t work.

Four- Thanks for not blaming the mom. Some jerks here and other sites have stated that the do blame the mom.

Five- Yes, it does depend on the maturity of the child in question. Several free range parents have stated this. But age shouldn’t have to much to do with it. I mean of course, a 4 year old can’t do what older kids can, but the idea of a age where your magically mature enough to do blank and blank is stupid.

six- sex offenders can be put on the list for peeing in public or have sex with your 17 year old girlfriend when your 18. Being on the list doesn’t mean their dangerous. Ideally, it would but it doesn’t seven- GPS tracker device? I can’t see any kids old enough to know what that is going for it.

samantha October 28, 2009, 5:40 AM

I totally agree with this article! A parent must be responsible for their children. Thank you for disputing the free range movement and its self appointed guru. While its true we can’t protect our kids from every danger I’ll still be vigilant in everyway to keep my kids safe. I’d rather be an overprotective mother than one grieving the loss of my child!

Claire October 28, 2009, 5:45 AM

To the anonymous 14 year old, go to school, grow up and have children before you offer advice to moms on how to raise their children. Believe it or not, age has a tremendous amount to do with maturity. Neither of which you know enough about yet.

VDog October 28, 2009, 5:56 AM

I can appreciate people’s fears. However, the facts differ from “media-reality.” The world is not a CSI episode.
(1) According the national center for missing and exploited children, the majority of child abductions are a family member or someone the child knows.
(2) According to US Dept. of Justice statistics, only 5% of sex offenders released in 1994 returned to prison for a new sex crime. This statistic seems pretty consistent for the general category of all sex offenders before the 1994 period and since. While there are specific groups of sex offenders who are legally defined as “predators,” and who represent a significant danger, this is not reflected in current sex offender registries–where politics has defined risk level rather than objective science.
(3) According to the California Attorney General’s office, “90% of child victims know their offender, with almost half of the offenders being a family member. Of sexual assaults against people age 12 and up, approximately 80% of the victims know the offender.” (Citing “Facts About Sex Offenders,”

VDog October 28, 2009, 5:57 AM

Insane registry laws and restrictions did not prevent the perverts, Philip Garrido AND HIS WIFE from doing what they did! The registry laws, and especially the residency / work place restrictions, have done far more harm than good. Forget about all the cases of vigilantism and suicide; forget about the fact that while these laws are proposed to protect the children, they include children, while a huge percentage of those on the list committed crimes that had nothing to do with children; forget about the fact that study after study has proven these laws not only are ineffective, but have actually made matters worse. Forget about the fact that upon release from custody, sex offenders have one of the lowest recidivism rates, not the highest. In fact those who receive counseling and treatment have outstanding records versus those convicted of other violent crimes! The fact is the registry and any restrictions should be limited to those who are proven child molesters and pedophiles; that Law Enforcement could handle and monitor effectively. Do you seriously believe a committed pedophile cannot walk or drive 500, 1000, 2500, 5000 feet or more? Jaycee Lee Dugard was abducted miles from where Philip Garrido lived!

I am sure we will see comments from hysterical, uninformed individual(s) who will suggest that all those on the registry should be locked up for life or worse and say there is no rehabilitation for these people. And for a few they are right, we need to focus on those! Once a person has done their time that should be it. That is the foundation of this great country and its legal system. Don’t like it, move to China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, or wherever individual rights are ignored. If a person is a pedophile, lock them up for a long time and provide treatment. Treatment not working, keep them locked up. Many families are being destroyed for political expediency; children of those on the registry are being abused and ostracized at school. Whole families are forced into isolation and restricted from the work place. If the registry is to truly protect the children, then let’s focus on the pedophiles and child molesters’. Get rid of the residency/work place restrictions, focus on the loitering laws. Let the rest on the registry re-assimilate into society after they have done their time, become solid, productive citizens; part of the solution not the problem. The facts, (and the Garrido case) as well as virtually all of the research, and study after study have proven what we are doing now, mostly for political expediency and to appease hysterical uninformed parents is not working and is in fact making matters worse!

Elizabeth October 28, 2009, 7:17 AM

I think we need to write USC and get your money back for that degree. Your entire essay is sophistry. Children are abducted in many different settings, including out of their own homes, not just out of doors. The solution is not to pretend that all parents have the ability to walk with their kids or drive their kids. It’s flat out wrong. And it is actually sickening to me to read your fake protestation that you do not blame the mother at the same time that you are blaming the mother. If it makes you feel better to think this could have all been avoided if the child was in carpool, go for it. But the sad truth is that another child would have met the same fate as Somer did, but she would have been taken out of her backyard, or out of her home in the middle of the night. The monster that committed this crime was on the prowl actively looking for his next victim, and he eventually would have found her and killed her, just like he did to this beautiful innocent child. And then what would you write about? Who would you blame? The solution isn’t to keep kids hidden away. The solution is to lock up pedophiles for life. I bet you a million dollars the guy who did this has a past history in pedophilia. Why do we allow criminals with past history in child pornography back on the street? They ought to be secluded forever once they have demonstrated this propensity.

Anonymous October 28, 2009, 10:50 AM

really sad society has gotten to this point. If my kids were going to the district school 4 blocks from my house, they would be walking already to and from school in kindergarten and second grade. However, it was closed and they attend a private school 1.5 miles away which we have said they can ride to school in 3-5th grade, we are not sure of the rules on this yet. What exactly does this do for the kids becoming independent if we are always around and shuttling them place to place? The idea of stranger danger is so overblown since most abuse happens by someone the child trusts.

Pamala October 28, 2009, 12:52 PM

We really are setting our children up to be a bunch of wusses that don’t know how to do anything without Mommy and Daddy at their side.

Seriously child abduction is no worse now than it ever has been yet by this article you’d think it was happening on every block. Thing is, it isn’t.

Our kids are given no freedom anymore, no ability to make decisions, problem solve, or learn how to react in social situations because we the parent are always at their side.

And what’s funny, that car pool that this child “should” have been a part of could have been driven by someone who would have abused her as well, seeing as most of these crimes are committed by a person who is family or is known by the child.

I honestly don’t know how parents live so full of fear each day? Imagine the stress.

Anonymous October 28, 2009, 1:17 PM

Clair- Why do you assume that just because I’m 14 I can’t be correct?

Lindsay October 28, 2009, 1:28 PM

Perhaps the fear factor here is overblown, but I would never ever forgive myself if something happened to my son because I was trying to let him gain his own independence as an elementary school-aged child. I also don’t let him play out in the front yard by himself or walk across the street without me watching. Maybe he’s gonna be a “wuss,” but I’d rather raise a wuss than have my sweet child be taken from me by someone evil.

Anonymous October 28, 2009, 5:35 PM

Of Course, we are ignoring the fact that abductions of kids off of streets are at a 40 year low.

More kids are killed in cars each day going to and from school than are kidnapped while walking around, but we don’t ban cars, do we?

Think before you get worried.

Anonymous October 28, 2009, 5:44 PM

free range parenting = free range chickens

Lenore Skenazy October 29, 2009, 9:20 AM

Hi! Lenore here — founder of Free-Range Kids. I very much agree that we must understand that the world can never be a totally safe place, and that therefore we must prepare our children for it. The way to do that is not by trying to accompany them everywhere, every minute — an impossibility. (And one that, moreover, has the unintentional consequence of making children believe they are living in a hostile world and that without mom, they are nothing.) Such neediness is a fine attitude for a 2 year old, but not for one who is 12. The way to create a strong, safe child is by gradually introducing him or her to the real world and making sure they know how to stand up for themselves. The head of the National Center for Missing Children, Ernie Allen, told me that “stranger danger” is exactly the myth they, too, are trying to explode. And they’re the folks who put the missing kids’ pictures on the milk cartons! The key to safety, he said, is confidence. And confidence does not come only from picking out one’s clothes. It comes from being part of the world and comfortable in it. In gaining street smarts, and learning to stand up for yourself. Confidence is not something you can buy for your kids. It is something they have to develop and it is our job to let them do that.
By the way, I really loved a lot of the comments here — beginning with the 14-yera-old’s! Thanks for listening — Lenore

Mark October 29, 2009, 9:38 AM

The thing that strikes me most about your writing is the capitalized NEVER and the exclamation point. As you probably know, exclamation points are really not something that you should use often in journalism, especially not in the title. As I read your piece, it continues to be full of unnecessary quotation marks and bold font. This style screams sensationalism and hype, rather than calm, well researched, factual writing. Hopefully others will notice this.

As you’re probably aware but choosing to ignore, a vast number of people on the offender registries harmed no one. 13 year olds goofing around stupidly with other 13 year olds and both are registered offenders. Streakers at football games. Etc… What they did was gross, in bad taste, and stupid. But nothing that should ruin a life. Which the offender registry does. In many places, offenders have no choice but to be homeless due to restrictive laws. And guess what? That greatly increases their chance of re-offending vs re-integrating them as productive members of society.

As for free-range parents being lazy, I disagree. It’s lazy to toss a GPS on your kid (where does THAT one end? Implantable microchips? ID number tattoos? How far would you go?) and just track them everywhere and never let them outside. It’s tough work to teach them how to survive in the world, how to take care of themselves, and how to explore. But guess what? The kids who learn that will be the ones who are leading the world tomorrow.

I think your job has given you a very distorted and sensationalist view. The world is really a very safe place to be. And taking extreme safety precautions has highly diminishing returns - it prevents very few horrible tragedies (notice - they still happen) while stifling the growth of millions of children. You should read Lenore’s book with an open mind and use your brain - rather than the news media and the horrible tragedies that your own job brings to you. Maybe you should even look at the cases at your own job and ask if your sensationalist “protections” would even have prevented the thing you see on a daily basis. My guess is, they wouldn’t (though I don’t know exactly what cases you deal with).

God bless,


anonymous October 29, 2009, 2:45 PM

How many people actually understand the sex offender laws? Do you know the different levels and what they mean? Each state has their own levels and limitations. Look it up bet you they arent as scary then. Can you protect your child in a car pool? What about accidents, drunk drivers, and break downs? You can take everything in life and make it a big deal. We cant have every kid walking around in bubble wrap!

toyfoto October 29, 2009, 7:09 PM

As a psychologist counseling victims of violent crime, do you NOT see the majority of your cases (not to mention most violence) as having known/trusted their attackers? Seems to me the real dangers lurk under our noses. To pretend its in the great unknown is just bad practice.

TrinaMb October 29, 2009, 7:43 PM

I have read your point of view, you have done nothing to convince me. It appears you have not actually reasearched the ‘free-range’ ideaology, or you would not be so quick to call us lazy and question our judgement. Hardly a way to get your message across. Each child on their own merits. You raise your children how you see fit, and I will continue to allow the development of confidence in my street smart children. By the way, pedophiles are known to look for the children lacking confidence, the ones who look unsure… accompanying your children all the time sure sets them up to be unsure the first time they are unaccompanied - no matter the age.
A note to the 14yo who commented here - good on you for speaking up to an adult - they aren’t always right. Another confidence instilling tip to teach all children.

Waltz October 29, 2009, 8:50 PM

Wow, this is way off the mark. Teaching and training one’s kids to be independent isn’t lazy-it’s actually more work than doing everything for your kids. Also, if one takes your approach, children should never be allowed near their family or anyone they know as the majority of crimes against children are committed by people they know. In addition you had better never EVER put your kid in a car as they are more likely to be injured or killed in a car accident than abducted by a stranger.

This bit of yours here: “I believe what is often the motivator for these “free living” parents is that by allowing their kids to be “independent,” it frees up the parents to focus on themselves, and also saves them the cost of child care. The parents are simply choosing their own independence over their child’s safety.”
Your take not only shows a tacit misunderstanding of the free range movement, but also a willful ignorance of the issue.

I have worked with 20 year olds who were raised the way you propose. They are helpless and thoughtless and unaware of what the real world is like and expect everything to be done for them or handed to them.
Please do more research before you decide to insult an entire group of people and claim that they do not love their children.

Kate October 29, 2009, 9:25 PM

Yeah, hi - do you drive a car? Would you ever put a kid in a car? Yeah, I thought you might. And I’ll bet you don’t see any parallels between that act and your anti-independence argument here, do you?

Okay, so, you must know some Free-Range parents, from researching your article here. Could you ask them a question for me? I count myself as one and so far it has not saved me a dime or bought me more time for myself - can you ask them when I can expect that to happen? Because, you know, on top of all the wonderful independence and confidence my kids are getting out of it, some time andmoney would be super-awesome.

An Idle Dad October 29, 2009, 10:05 PM

Wow - the casual dismissal of the argument made by Lenore & Free Range supporters.
Sure, bad stuff happens. Really, really bad stuff. But locking up kids isn’t the answer. Like Kate says above - it is like giving up driving (she is right, cars are far, far more dangerous to my daughters than pedophiles are). The above is an impractical over-reaction.

Viva the free range movement. My kids will be outside more, experience more, live more, love more, talk more and in the end, be more successful than yours - so keep the fat slobs tucked inside on the Wii.

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