Seattle's Child

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Fear and the free-range parent: Just because a crime is on Facebook, should we be afraid?

Expect to see a certain 10-year-old roaming Redmond, playing with neighbor kids and walking to visit her grandma. Just don’t expect to see her mom.


When school’s out and the glory days of summer vacation start, expect to see a certain 10-year-old roaming around her townhouse community in downtown Redmond, playing with neighbor kids and walking to visit her grandma. Just don’t expect to see her mom.

“She has had free run of the neighborhood, within the boundaries of the two large streets, since she was in first grade, so 6 years old,” says Malia Kawaguchi of her daughter, Hana. “She has a walkie-talkie with her, and in the summer, she’ll leave at 9 a.m., and come home for dinner.” (Lunch is sometimes at a friend’s house.)

To some families, this version of “free-range” parenting is terrifying. What if something goes wrong? Who’s watching out for strangers? Kawaguchi has a different worry.

“I am not afraid that anything will happen, other than that someone will call CPS (Child Protective Services) on me. Everyone is so freaked out about the safety aspect.” Her worry isn’t that far-fetched.

Just ask the Meitiv family of Silver Spring, Maryland. The family’s two children, 10 and 6, were picked up by police earlier this year after someone called to report that they were walking home from a park alone. It wasn’t the first time, either. Despite the older child’s explanation that they were close to home and knew where they were, police turned them over to CPS. The parents were reunited with them several scary hours later.

Kawaguchi, 40, argues that children are actually safer now than they were in “the good old days,” and that the fear of a child being abducted by a stranger is unnecessary.

“I can’t live like that,” she says. “Hana has known from the very beginning that our family doesn’t live that way. We don’t do things or not do things because of fear.”


‘On everyone’s Facebook’

Statistically speaking, Kawaguchi is right. “Children are at a higher risk of being victimized by someone they know than by someone they don’t,” says Laurie Drapela, associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University Vancouver. “Between 1995 and 2005, crime rates shot down dramatically.”

What’s changed is that we’re all more aware when something bad happens. “Part of it is related to the mass media,” says Dana Lee Baker, an associate professor in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at WSU Vancouver. “So if a child is kidnapped anywhere in the country, it’s on everyone’s Facebook five minutes later.”

Drapela agrees, as she lists some of the national “nightmare stories” of kidnapped children that are part of our collective memory: Etan Patz, Adam Walsh, Jaycee Dugard.

“We live in an overall culture of safety now that we didn’t live in three decades ago,” she says. “Our entire approach to parenting now is mitigating risk of any kind. We use safety equipment in cars, we use safety equipment on rides. The idea that you would ever bike without a helmet is shocking.”

And what would have seemed like a mundane activity — playing in the park — in 1950 now looks very risky. “The irony is that the odds of the kids having any kind of victimization risk would have been much higher in 1965, or ’75 or ’85, when crime rates were higher than they are now,” Drapela says.

Kawaguchi knows this, and she and her husband, Chang, have chosen to raise their daughter without that fear. Her daughter’s personality is key. “My daughter from a very early age was interested in being left alone (in the car) so she could finish her book and not have to come into the store with me,” says the former career counselor-turned-writer, who has written about her parenting approach and the free-range debate.


‘This is my baby’

Even if parents know the real “stranger danger” risk to their children is low, it’s still easy to sense that nagging fear.

“I really truly believe in this,” Kawaguchi said of giving her daughter independence. “But at the same time, there was an 11-year-old girl at her school, who was … walking herself to a city bus stop and riding home from school. And the first time I heard about it, I had the reaction, ‘What is she doing? She’s too little.’ But then I had to step back and look at, they had a plan, she knew her bus route, she had a cell phone.”

Drapela, too, knows that feeling. The 47-year-old mother of a 9-year-old daughter recalled an instance when her husband gave their daughter permission to ride her bike down the street to look for a playmate.

“I was cool for 10 minutes. Then I started thinking, (child kidnapping victim) Megan Kanka was roaming around her neighborhood.” So Drapela started walking, and found her daughter was, of course, safe nearby.

“It’s like, statistics are great, but this is my baby.”