How Independent is Your Nine Year Old?

iStock_000010889847XSmall.jpgI’ve been contemplating writing about that horrific story of the little nine year old Hasidic boy who was abducted by a deranged man in his community and senselessly murdered.
What hit too close to home for me was that the child was nine – the same age my son is now. The boy, who was doted upon by his protective parents, asked them to give him the chance to walk home from day camp by himself for the first time in his young life. His parents agreed and his mother showed him the way before letting him do it by himself. Unfortunately, when the boy became disoriented and asked for directions, his innocence was taken away by an unstable man who abducted and killed him and then mutilated his body so that no one would find evidence of his disappearance.
When I think back to my own childhood, I remember walking home from school in the fourth grade and letting myself into my home while my parents were at work. I was a total latch key kid. In my situation, I knew exactly where I was going, traversed the route hundreds of times and oftentimes walked with friends back to my home. In the case of my nine year old, I am ultra protective and would never dream of letting him walk alone without an adult or a friend by his side. In fact, just this year, we gave our 12 year old daughter a cell phone and she now knows that the moment she leaves our house and reaches the bus stop, she must stop whatever she’s doing and call us to let us know she’s arrived safely.
My nine year old doesn’t own a cell phone and he won’t receive one until he’s ready for middle school. While he can technically walk around the corner to school on his own, we choose to accompany him so that we know he arrives safely. Truthfully, that decision is not motivated by the prospect of him being kidnapped, but the simple fact that there are reckless drivers in our neighborhood who race up and down our streets without paying attention to whether pedestrians are in their path.
If my nine year old were to ask me if he could walk home by himself, I would say no. In fact, I said no to my daughter for nearly two years. As much as she wanted to assert her independence and walk to school on her own, I just didn’t feel comfortable – especially since she had no way of getting in touch with us to let us know she arrived safely.
While the Hasidic community installed security cameras that inevitably led to the killer’s arrest, I truly believe as a parent that if you decide to give your child some freedom, in this day and age, they should be armed with the tools they may need to protect themselves in the event they get lost or are approached by a stranger. A cell phone can truly be a lifeline for a child and may have played a role in saving that poor little boy’s life. Please know that I am not passing judgement on his parents and their actions that day. My heart aches for their loss. In fact, having seen this story unfold in the news only makes me want to hold onto my nine year old just a little bit longer each morning, hoping that my hugs will serve as protection while I’m at work. May this experience give people a wake up call. Even if your child asks you to do something, you don’t necessarily have to do it. You are the parent and it’s okay to say no.
As far as my own son, he won’t be walking by himself until he’s in middle school and has access to a cell phone. As long as he has a device in his possession that he can use to call me, his dad and 911, I’ll have peace of mind knowing that while he may be out of sight, he’s only a phone call away.