A Tale of the MailSeptember 26, 2009
I’ve been one of those hyper-paranoid mothers who cringes when letting her seven-year-old son use a public restroom unattended by a parent because there is sure to be a serial molester lurking within, just waiting for a kid to pounce on. But The Boy is nearly eight, and mommy can’t drag him into the Ladies’ Room anymore, so I let him go off on his own with warnings not to talk to anyone and, for the love of Pete, wash your hands!
Then I use hand sanitizer on him anyway when he gets back because he probably touched the door handle.
I am ridiculously paranoid. In other words, I’m an American suburban mother in 2009. Everyone in my social set is exactly the same way.
But there’s been a part of me that hates this. I don’t enjoy tailing The Boy in every activity he pursues as though he might light himself on fire or get snatched up in a windowless van if my back were turned for 15 seconds. He’s a pretty responsible kid, especially for his age. My mom friends and I lament to each other about how we wish we could let our kids run around outside in little gangs, unsupervised, the way we used to run around when we were kids.
And then I stumbled across Lenore Skenazy. You may remember Lenore’s being in the news recently when she let her nine-year-old son, Izzy, ride the New York subway by himself. He took the train from Bloomingdale’s to their apartment and came home not only unscathed but with a newfound sense of self-reliance. Lenore wrote a column about the experience in the New York Post, and that was the beginning of an international firestorm that ended with her being proclaimed “World’s Worst Mother.”
I was fascinated by Lenore’s story. I started reading her blog, Free-Range Kids, and as I read I felt a growing sense that this lady is on to something. It’s not that I’m suddenly convinced to let my kids ride solo on my city’s sketchy public transportation, but rather that I’m beginning to see my paranoia for the nuttiness it is.
I picked up a copy of Free-Range Kids (the book) and was immediately assured that it would be worth reading when I saw the title of the first chapter: “Play Dates and Axe Murderers: How to Tell the Difference.”
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Ms. Skenazy is flip. She’s hysterically hilarious, but she backs up her assertions with cold, hard facts, and that appeals to the logical part of me.
So I decided after reading a bit to try an experiment. I would let The Boy get the mail by himself.
I know I just heard you snort.
Our mailbox is neither on our front porch nor in our front yard. Instead, it’s about a 1/3-mile round-trip around a curvy street. I cannot see the mailbox without walking roughly 200 yards away from our house. The Boy would have to cross one cul-de-sac and walk about 10 minutes by himself (at least half of it out of my sight) to get the mail.
Allow me to set the scene: it’s a warm, sunny afternoon in suburbia, about 3 o’clock. The lawns have greened up with recent rains, and a mild breeze blows the scent of lantana and fresh-cut St. Augustine. Nary a car rolls by on our quiet street. The Boy sets off with an extra spring in his springy seven-year-old step, and I watch calmly out of the kitchen window until he is out of sight around the bend. Then I calmly pick up a book and calmly step out onto the front porch, where I sit down to await his return. Calmly.
And then the murder car drives by.
It’s not a windowless van, but it is something almost equally alarming. It’s a blue SUV with a girl who’s roughly 10 years old standing up with the top half of her body sticking out of the sunroof. And it’s heading straight for the mailbox.
I am not joking. This actually happened.
In 35 years of life, I have seen only the occasional drunken idiot somewhere between the ages of 18 and 28 sticking out of a moving vehicle’s sunroof, usually at night, downtown, and while making the “woo!” noise. So when I saw this preteen practicing for her very own Girls Gone Wild video on my street at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I was distressed.
My mind leaped to the only logical conclusion: any driver who would let a child hang out of the sunroof of a moving vehicle would also swoop up my seven-year-old boy and sell him into child slavery somewhere in Asia. No doubt letting him hang out of the sunroof all the way to the docks.
I prepared myself to sprint to the mailbox. (The Boy had my car keys, conveniently attached to the same key ring as my mailbox key.)
But then I didn’t.
Instead I took a deep breath and sat back down. And I waited, straining my ears for the sounds of screaming and squealing tires. Three minutes later, The Boy reappeared around the bend, holding a piece of mail and grinning.
He came home unscathed and with a newfound sense of self-reliance. And I took a baby step toward moving him toward adulthood.