My twelve-year-old daughter will walked to school this morning, she has been since a year ago when she began at Martin Luther King Middle School about a mile from our home in north Berkeley. As Jan Hoffman reported in yesterday’s Sunday Styles section of the NYT, this kind of routine traverse to and from school, a fixture of my childhood (ironically I was living in Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago where in the late 1960s street crime was hardly a fantasy), has become an endangered species in early 21st century America, a victim of a handful of childhood predators among us, and a vast and largely state supported fear of victimization. While according to Hoffman fewer than 115 child abductions by strangers occurs in a year on average, many Americans will see that many “Amber Alert” highway signs blinking a message about a child kidnapping in progress.
Those parents that seek to allow their children what one author and parent, Lenore Skenazi has appropriately called “Free Range" childhood, (the alternative the “gated childhood” we no impose on kids of all classes in the name of their security. Despite the fact that my daughter walks through an upper-middle class neighborhood where there are hardly ever drive by shootings or outdoor drug selling, the fact that a stranger might pull up and force her into a car (more or less what happened to Jaycee Dugard in South Lake Tahoe 19 years ago) haunts me and probably every parent. My wife and I have decided to embrace “free range childhood” for our kids because we have concluded that on balance the physical and mental gains from enjoying autonomy and that quintessential form of freedom known as walking around one’s neighborhood outweigh that terrifying if vanishingly small risk of a kidnapping.
The focus on gated childhood is important as we reflect on the costs of over-securitizing American society. While my book Governing through Crime devotes only a chapter to the family, and only a small part of that to the issue of overprotecting one’s children, it is in many respects where the war on crime really begins and ends. Protecting ones’ children, rather than conscious or unconscious racism, is the primary consideration that leads parents to choose non-walkable and non-diverse gated communities to live in, sterile segregated schools, and harsh penal policies that promise to (regardless of how marginally) improve that protection. Until we stop imprisoning our children behind walls of our own fear, there is little chance we will stop imprisoning so many of our fellow citizens. That is one political battle that will have to be fought one household at a time.
[Cross posted at Prawfsblawg]