While Dan and I were navigating black ice this past Sunday, Rosa was headed to Sanibel Island with her grandparents, on a quest to observe the roseate spoonbill. Her trip to Florida was their Christmas present to her, and it came with promises to go birding every day. It was a dream trip for our self-proclaimed "Bird Nerd". The only catch was that she would have to fly on her own.
At 15, Rosa is too old to be an "unaccompanied minor", a designation which would have allowed me to walk all the way to the gate with her and to watch her board the plane under the supervision of a flight attendant. I had to wave goodbye at the security check and watch as she headed off into the airport to find her gate on her own. This was actually the second time we've done this--she flew out to Minnestoa on her own for Spring Break when she was 14. So of course, I was more anxious about the trip than she was.
When I checked her in the day before, I was discouraged to discover that she would be in the last group boarding her Southwest flight. "Don't worry, Mom," Rosa told me. "I like sitting next to people I don't know on airplanes. It give me a chance to act like Sherlock Holmes. I can observe them and try to figure out what their story is." Rosa has often struck up conversations with the people she's sitting next to on flights, even when she is traveling with our family. Inevitably, people are delighted to talk with her. I mostly find this reassuring, figuring that the people she befriends would be willing to help her in an emergency.
Unaccompanied children have been the topic of much discussion in our neck of the woods, ever since the Washington Post ran a story about a family in Montgomery county who were investigated by Child Protective Services after the police picked up their kids, aged 10 and 6, who were walking along Georgia Avenue by themselves. The kids were walking home from the park with their parents' permission. Their parents have been slowly giving them more independence, allowing them to walk down the block on their own, then to the 7-11 a couple of blocks away, etc.
It seems like a completely reasonable thing to do. After all, most of us who are now the parents of young children were raised this way. We were the "latch key" kids who let ourselves in to empty houses after school. We played outside with other kids in the neighborhood without telling our parents exactly where we were going or who we were with. Crime rates are even lower than they were in the 1970's when we were kids. And now, most kids walk around with cell phones with GPS tracking. We have every reason to let our kids walk around on their own, and yet almost no one does.
Maryland law states that children can't be left alone in the house until they are 8 years old (unless there is a child who is at least 13 years old with them). Most parents I know are aware of this law because we are all anxious for our kids to get old enough so that we can leave them at home when we run out to do a quick errand. It didn't really register with me until I read last week's news coverage of the "free range" children that this law only applies to kids left alone in houses or cars. There are no laws saying that a six-year-old child cannot be left to play in a playground unattended.
Once I thought about that, I realized it makes perfect sense. It is, in fact, much more dangerous to leave a child home alone than it is to leave them unattended in a public place. At home, a child could hurt herself, cut herself, burn herself and not know how to respond. She could become afraid and not know how to find help. In public, a hurt or afraid child would immediately attract attention, not just from the police but from neighbors and even strangers. There are also nasty people in the world who try to take advantage of children, but when our children in public spaces, they are protected by the kindness of strangers.
Shouldn't that be what we teach our kids? Don't go off alone with anyone you don't know well (when you are 6 or 16 or 26....) You are safer around a group of strangers than you are in an intimate encounter with an acquaintance. You can make yourself safer, in fact, by talking to strangers, striking up conversations with the people around you so that you feel comfortable asking for help if and when you need it.
Trust groups. Be careful about isolation.