Letting Our Kids Walk to School ... After Somer

By Lenore Skenazy

October 21, 2009 5 min read

When you hear that a little girl was abducted and killed — as we did this past week about Somer Renee Thompson, the Florida 7-year-old who ran ahead of her friends on her walk home from school and was found a few days later in a landfill — it is hard to feel anything other than anguish and rage.

Seeing your kids come through the door feels like a blessing. Hugging them feels like a gift from heaven. Literally. Even if you are not particularly religious, you may feel like running out and sacrificing a ram without blemish, the gratitude is so basic and deep.

With this gratitude comes this resolution: I will do everything humanly possible to make sure my child never suffers that same fate.

The good news is that you almost positively will succeed. The surprising news is that you actually don't have to do anything differently. You don't even have to drive your child to school.

Stranger abductions are so rare that the odds are already overwhelmingly in our favor. Our desire to make kids safer ignores the reality of how safe they already are. We have 1,499,999 chances to keep our children from being the 1 in 1.5 million kidnapped by strangers in America. Somer's case made national and even international news precisely because it is so rare. Better still: It's becoming rarer.

That's according to David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, which tracks and works to prevent violence against kids. "I am of the opinion that these kinds of crimes have declined," he has said, attributing the drop to many things, including better policing, more cell phones, longer prison terms for violent criminals and even the fact that psychiatric drugs are becoming more effective and available.

Knowing all that should make it a little easier to let our kids go outside, but since when has rationality ever dictated parenting decisions? The fact is fewer and fewer children are walking to school. It's down to about 1 in 10 nationally.

Across the country, many school districts no longer allow bus drivers to drop children off at stops unless preapproved adults are waiting at them. Other districts have dispensed with bus stops entirely and drop each child off at home. And then there's one school down in Florida where afternoon pickup works this way: Parents in their cars form a single line. No children are allowed outside. As the parent pulls up to the front, a facilitator radios into the school, "Sophia's mom is here!" And Sophia is escorted out to her mother's car.

In light of the Florida abduction, there are many who will say, "If only the little girl's parents had picked her up like that!" But what they won't say is that there is no way to keep our children in complete and utter safety, no matter what we do. Elizabeth Smart was taken from her bedroom. Adam Walsh was with his mom. When we believe only the children of lazy or negligent parents get hurt, we blame the people hurting the most — the parents.

Already there has been a hue and cry against the Thompsons. "They never should have let their kids walk home from school."

This is the same kind of blame we heaped on rape victims up till the '70s. "She never should have walked down that street. She asked for it." It was a facile way to feel safe. "I never would do what she did, so nothing bad ever will happen to me."

Eventually, we realized that was wrong. Nobody asks to be raped. But we haven't realized this yet when it comes to crimes against children.

Somer's parents did nothing wrong. Walking to school is almost always safe, and it's getting safer. But evil, unfortunately, exists, and so does fate, even when we act as if we can control absolutely everything.

We can't. We live in an imperfect world. We do our best; we love our hardest; we train our kids; we hope for the best. We are not wrong to trust the odds, even if we sometimes feel the overwhelming urge to sacrifice a ram.

Lenore Skenazy is the founder of FreeRangeKids.com and author of "Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry." To find out more about Lenore Skenazy (lskenazy@yahoo.com) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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