Author Tracy Cutchlow’s daughter.

Would you call 911 if you saw a child sitting in a car parked outside a store, alone, engrossed in a video game?

Or a 9-year-old playing alone at a playground?

Or a 10- and 6-year-old walking purposefully, hand-in-hand, toward home?

Stories are mounting of people calling the cops on parents who let their older kids attempt a bit of independence. The parents are suddenly subjected to arrests, regular visits from Child Protective Services, a media storm and in one case, losing a job because of the attention. Their children become afraid to step outside, and so do they. These parents are charged with being neglectful, even though they have thoughtfully made the decision that their children are capable of accomplishing these tasks safely.

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“At least people are trying to look out for the kids,” some say.

No, they’re not. Here’s what it would mean to look out for the kids:

Keeping an eye on the car until the parent returned, to help make sure nothing happened to the child. (Not standing there videotaping the child so you can show authorities, then smugly saying “Bye now” when the mom returns five minutes later.)

Smiling at the child on the playground and saying, “I don’t see your parents here. Please come to me if you need any help, okay? My little one is playing there, and I’m sitting over here.” Enlisting another parent to take the baton when you have to leave. Putting out a call to neighbors to help the family find or trade for child care. (Not calling the cops when the child says her mom is at work.)

Asking the children who are walking home, “Are you okay? Do you need any help?” Stepping aside when they show you a laminated card saying “I am not lost. I am a free-range kid.” (Not calling the cops—who come to the house, demand that the father go upstairs to get his ID, then say in front of the kids that if he comes back with anything else, “shots will be fired.”)

The usual argument defending these callers is: “The world is a dangerous place,” as one dad told CNN. And the usual counterargument is that the world is actually a less dangerous place, statistically, than it was a generation ago, when no one batted an eye at a child walking home from school solo.

But statistics are not the real issue. People don’t fear seeing kids outside alone because they haven’t read up on the latest abduction statistics.

The real issue? We can’t rely on our neighbors to help look out for our kids, and that’s why our neighborhoods don’t feel safe enough. When you let a 10- and 6-year-old walk home on their own, it feels scary because they’re fully responsible for their own safety. What’s missing is the sense that we’re all responsible for everyone’s children.

Jared Diamond’s latest book, about how traditional cultures manage themselves, talks a lot about the differences when people know each other vs. don’t know each other. A small village, for example, doesn’t create a complex court system to settle disputes; people are expected to work it out. It seems to me that to reclaim any sense of the village it takes to raise a child, we need to start with knowing our neighbors. I don’t know half of the people living in my condo building, let alone on my street. How about you?

I understand that the reasons for this are vast, starting with the disappearance of the front porch and ending with the disconnectedness of the Internet. These structural shifts can seem too big to push against on our own. But here are some simple things we can each do:
We can invite a next-door neighbor over for dinner.

We can make a point of attending neighborhood events, such as farmers markets or park dedications or festivals.

We can make an effort to chat with other parents when we pick up our kids from daycare or school.

We can walk instead of drive, so that we see our neighbors and have a chance of talking to them.

We can teach our children that if they’re alone and feeling scared, they can seek out a woman with children and ask for help. Teach them not to fear all strangers.

We can tie the shoe of someone else’s kid at the playground, or reach out a hand when someone else’s kid wants to get down from the playground ladder. We can ask a parent who’s juggling too much stuff: “Please let me carry that for you.” We can accept offers of help instead of demurring. These small things say “We’re in this together” when every message around us says “It’s all on you.”

We can let our children venture out, after preparing them gradually. We can keep in mind that these CPS horror stories are not typical—”just like the millions of kids who are not abducted by strangers don’t make the news,” as one dad commented on Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids blog.

Not long ago, there were block mothers. Melanie Salonen, a Seattle parenting educator and former teacher, remembers them. “I remember walking home great distances when I was a child,” she says, “But I also remember seeing a small sign in most windows telling me that a ‘block mother’ resided there and I could stop in if I got hurt or worried. I felt secure that I could have my needs met if I ran into difficulty.” Doesn’t that sound nice? We don’t need signs in our windows to create some sense of this on our own blocks.

Be the block mother, not the cop caller. That’s the path to neighborhoods that feel safe enough for everyone’s kids to roam.

Tracy Cutchlow is the author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science (and What I’ve Learned So Far) and editor of the bestselling books Brain Rules for Baby and Brain Rules. As a journalist, she has worked for MSN Money and the Seattle Times. She lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter.

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