Opening Words from Sun. October 30 by Nathan Schrenk

Good Morning! My name is Nathan Schrenk. I joined the Ethical Society in May this year, and this is the first time I’ve given Opening Words. My path to the Ethical Society was fairly similar to that of some other members I’ve heard speak here, so instead of telling you about that I decided to speak on a different topic: raising children who can confidently navigate the world around them.

Imagine that you see a 6-year-old child walking down the sidewalk alone. The child is not visibly distressed or crying for help, but the child seems to be unsupervised. Do you feel anxious or concerned for the child? If you are concerned, how should you help? Would you feel differently if the child appears to be 8 years old? Or 10? What if the child is playing alone at a park, or riding a bicycle alone down the sidewalk or street? Or if you see two children walking down the sidewalk or playing at a park unsupervised?

My wife, Kathy, and I believe that providing gradually increasing levels of independence and freedom to our children, in measure appropriate to their age and capabilities, helps them develop skills that they need to succeed in the world. Some people call this “free-range parenting”, and I like that label.

Our 9- and 11-year old sons take turns giving our dog his daily walks around the neighborhood by themselves. They’ve been doing that for several years, since they were 6 and 8. Our 11-year-old son rides his bicycle to school unaccompanied. He’s in 6th grade now, and he has a lot of practice riding to school: we started letting him bicycle home from school unaccompanied when he was in 2nd grade. Before we allowed him to ride alone we accompanied him to and from school on our bicycles until we were sure he could safely handle the responsibility of riding by himself.

He has never had any problems with his bicycle trips to and from school, I feel lucky that a well-meaning adult has never interfered with him. In 2014 we read a newspaper story that hit close to home: A 4th grader attending the same school our son attended in 2nd grade was walking home unaccompanied when an adult decided he looked too young to be walking unaccompanied and called the police. A police officer responded, took the child into custody, and drove him home. The child was frightened by this situation, and the police officer lectured the child’s mother on the dangers of allowing the child to walk home from school alone. I would be dismayed if people interfered with my son like this.

There seem to be many people in our society who become so worried when they see a child, or several children, unsupervised in a public place that they quickly call the police. I have difficulty understanding this reaction. Do these people believe unsupervised children are in so much danger that the government should intervene to take the children into custody to protect the children? Are they upset that parents would be so irresponsible as to allow their children to be unsupervised in a public place that they call the police with a desire that the parents are punished? I’ve even read multiple news stories about people calling the police to report unsupervised children playing in the children’s own fenced-in back yard without an adult visible outside! That’s not neighborly behavior.

Let’s circle back to the question I asked earlier: Are you alarmed if you see a child walking down the sidewalk or playing in the park alone, and if so, what do you do? Here’s what I hope you would do: briefly observe the child from afar and look for indications that the child is distressed or in trouble. The vast majority of the time the child is fine, and the best thing to do is to go about your business, happy that this child is learning to confidently navigate her world, which will help her grow up to be a well-adjusted independent adult, moving out of her parent’s house, contributing to society and paying taxes to help support you in your old age.

If you do see something alarming, you could approach the child and gently ask if they are okay or if they would like help. If they say they are okay and don’t need help, believe them, and go on your way. Only call the police if you are pretty sure the child is in trouble, and the child doesn’t know how to contact their parent or guardian.

If you see my children walking or bicycling in public without an adult present, please don’t report them to police or child protective services. I wouldn’t allow them to do these things if I didn’t feel they are capable of doing them safely. Thank you.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.