When you're a mom, people are always telling you to "trust your gut." Indeed, I like to think my gut has gotten rather dependable over the years. It's helped me discern when my daughter's boo-boos require kisses, versus NASCAR-worthy sprints to the ER. It's told me when my son was ready to wean, my daughter to ride the school bus. It's even whispered that I could take a step back, letting my daughter have her first sleepover. There is one situation, however, where my gut seems to be failing me. And that is the highly charged issue of when my daughter can play outside by herself.
To be honest, this one has me stumped. My daughter wants to play alone in our small patch of yard bordering the street, and I'm uncomfortable. I'm not exactly sure why. She knows not to talk to strangers or step onto the road. Yet phrases like "stranger danger" stick in my head like an unshakable Taylor Swift song, and I'm a wreck. What if a strange man approaches her with a lost dog, a lollipop, and a limo full of My Little Ponies, beckoning her inside? What if she chases a ball into the street? What if a spaceship lands and she's abducted by child-devouring aliens, never to be seen again?
Some of these worries are legitimate; others are based on fear (or The X-Files). Yet behind these concerns lurks a darker, more insidious truth: I'm afraid of what others will think. And, even worse, what they might do.
I recently read an article about parents being arrested for "questionable" decisions: A mom in Connecticut leaving her 11-year-old in the car while she ran into a store. A Georgia mom letting her 9-year-old play in the park while she worked at McDonald's. Frankly, stories like these frighten me. Because, suddenly, it's not just my gut deciding whether my daughter is old enough to finger-paint outside while I cook dinner. Suddenly, I have to worry about another adult seeing her and, instead of knocking on my door, frantically dialing 9-1-1 as though my kid were being chased by an ax-wielding sex offender. And so I'm faced with a dilemma: keep my child "safely" inside, or let her go and put us all in danger.
But how much danger is she in, really? According to Radley Balko, blogging about the "criminalization of parenthood" for the Washington Post, the data doesn't support the paranoia. He points to research stating that crimes against children are at a historic low, and most child abduction is carried out by family members, friends, or acquaintances -- not strangers. While the world may seem scarier than when we were kids, much of that is perception, not fact.
Indeed, things were different back then. I rode my bike to friends' houses, played tag with kids on the block. These things were considered normal. Recently, I watched an old Brady Bunch episode, in which Bobby goes to a store to buy a doll for Cindy, unbeknownst to his family. Today, the kindly store owner would call the cops (after taking Bobby's money, of course), and they would promptly arrest Carol Brady for child neglect. Carol's theme-song picture would be a mugshot. And the viewers? We'd be online, leaving anonymous comments that all six kids (and maybe Alice) should be removed by Social Services. How times have changed.
And yet, I can't pretend I'm immune to this trend. Recently, a friend was questioned by the police for leaving her 9-year-old in the car outside the grocery store. When my husband told me the story, my knee-jerk response was, "You can't do that!" Apparently, I've joined the bandwagon. I don't want to be that mom. I don't want everyone who walks by my home to pity the poor, unsupervised child playing outside of it, who's clearly going to grow up to be a street thug, or a politician. I don't want to end up a story on some news site about yet another arrested parent, followed by hostile comments wondering what I was thinking, who let me have kids, and who selected my wardrobe.
And so, that inner voice that tells me what's best for my kids has become a chorus. I find myself parenting by consensus, trying to follow rules I don't fully grasp about what's "right" for my family. Whatever my motivation, I don't think my daughter is ready to play outside alone yet. I could argue that I'm following my gut -- my natural instinct to protect my children -- instead of following the crowd. But the truth is, I'm not so sure. Somewhere along the way, my gut was drowned out by angry strangers with judgments and cell phones. And, somewhere along the way, I may have become one of them.
This post originally appeared on the blog Mommy A to Z. Follow Mommy A to Z on Facebook and Twitter, and check out the new book Mommy A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the Joys, Wonders, and Absurdities of Motherhood.