Don’t walk in worry on the way back to school

lenore skenazyBY LENORE SKENAZY | Can we please stop telling parents that it is normal to be terrified for even the shortest periods of time when kids are doing the most mundane of activities: walking to or from school?

Because here’s what NBC’s Alyssa Newcomb reported the other day in a piece on “Back-to-School Safety Tech That Helps Keep Kids Safe” (the title alone reinforcing the idea that kids are not safe without us taking new, tech-assisted precautions): “No matter how mature and responsible a child is, those few blocks without adult supervision are enough to make most parents worry.”

Since when? Since crime is back to the level it was in 1963? Since we are living in the safest times in human history according to Harvard’s Steven Pinker? Since even child deaths at the hand of a kidnapper — already extremely rare — are now one-fifth of what they were just 20 years ago?

“Most parents worry” about a few-block walk, in these particularly safe times, even if they know their kids are mature and responsible?

That seems like some kind of illness. Yes, it is normal to worry if the neighborhood is truly crime-ridden. And naturally, it can be worrying if a child is late getting home, or if it is the first week of school and the child is just getting used to the walk. But for parents to worry no matter how mature their kid, how short the walk, and how safe the neighborhood does not make sense.

Igniting the fuse of fear makes sense for only two groups of people: The media, who depend on fear to keep us engaged; and the makers of tech tracking devices, who depend on our dollars to stay in business. After all, if they can convince us that it is normal to fret any time we take our eyes off our kids, they can sell us products that keep our eyes on them.

And so reporter Newcomb goes on to list four products that track kids and apprise the parents of their location. The Pocketfinder is one. It goes in the child’s backpack and “updates a parent’s smartphone with their location every two minutes.”

Obsess much? It also alerts parents the second their child veers off the prescribed path. What a joy that makes walking home: Follow that squirrel for a block and mom calls 911.

Then there’s Life 360, which is free and sounds like Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map, showing every family member’s location. But if you pay a premium (aha!) you can get “expanded history data and a live adviser for urgent situations.” Just suggesting “urgent situations” makes the walk sound dire.

The Canary, also profiled, is part of a $199 home security system, allowing you “to see live video and hear audio from their home. Parents can even replay the video clip from when their child walked in the door, ensuring that they were with only authorized house guests.”

Maybe it should really be called the Stool Pigeon. It seems less like a normal household device and more like the closed-circuit television above the door at a 7-Eleven.

And finally there’s the August Smart Lock, which lets you “see and speak to whoever is at your door, even if you’re not home.” It also locks and unlocks your door, long distance, “making it ideal if your kid forgets their key,” according to Newcomb. At $400, it might be more ideal to make your kid a few extra keys, or even hide one someplace clever.

So now I, too, have some advice on how to keep your kid safe on the way home from school — advice that the television report, in its haste to hail technological solutions to nearly non-existent dangers, forgot. Teach your children to:

  •  Look left, look right, and look left again when crossing the street.
  •  Make sure that anyone turning sees them in the crosswalk.
  •  Ask strangers for help if they need it. Teaching “stranger danger” removes all the people who could help them in an emergency (remember, a Utah Boy Scout was lost for three days because every time he heard a search party member calling his name, he scampered off to hide from the “stranger”). However, teach your kids that they while they can talk to anyone, they cannot go off with anyone. And they should not get into someone’s car

Those are tips that make a lot of sense and, by golly, they are free! Of course, for a premium, I will add a new and pointless tip every month. Sign up now!

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker who authored the book, and founded the blog, Free-Range Kids (freerangekids.com).