• Fri, Dec 27 - 11:00 am ET

Anonymous Mom: I Let My Young Children Play By Themselves On A Street In New Orleans

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“Are these your children?”

The man’s speech was slurred. My husband Bruce had opened the front door, and our children and our dog skulked past the man at the door and into the living room. The children stood there, mute, between the stranger and Bruce while the dog eased past us, low to the ground. As I got closer, I smelled beer on his breath.

“I found them playing on the corner by the tree,” he said, “and I thought they were too little to be on their own. I didn’t mean to scare them. I’m not a bad guy. I was just trying to protect them by bringing them home.” He was almost wider than he was tall, wearing shorts, a New Orleans Hornets tank top, and weatherbeaten flip-flops. He kept chuckling and smiling, as if expecting us to do the same. “I live just around the corner on State Street.”

“Were they bothering you?” asked Bruce. “Were they doing anything wrong?” He put a hand on each of their heads.

“Oh, no, it’s just your little girl especially, she’s so tiny. I thought something might happen to them. Someone might hurt them.” He made eye contact with me. Someone. I thought of checking the sex offenders map on the Internet. 1100 block of State Street. Then I felt guilty for not thanking him.

The children were six and four. Our son was the oldest child on the block, and he loved to be outside. We’d just begun letting the children play by the tree three doors down, and this was the fifth time someone had returned them like runaway poodles.
After taking our awkward leave from the stranger, Bruce and I looked at each other. I felt like a bad mother, but he was mad. “Where does that guy get off?” he asked.
“That guy is a stranger,” I said, more to Bruce than to the children. “And they just went with him.”

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  • Zettai

    Very interesting story. I am as undecided as you are.

  • http://motherintune.com/5things Ekanem Ebinne

    If it were me deciding between allowing my child to be an unpaid domestic worker and possibly a victim of crime, sexual or otherwise, I’d pick neither. I see a myriad of bright possibilities for happy, healthy, enlivening experiences for children and I don’t feel the need to add ugly risks to the menu. Very picturesque story, and thanks for sharing.

  • Guest

    I feel like there is a pretty big difference between letting kids play outside and waking up a single adult man to make him breakfast in the morning. I am very genuinely glad for you that you got a positive friendship, but as someone who has spent years working in women’s shelters with abused girls… I can’t imagine such a friendship ever being worth the risk.

  • darras

    I’m not sure that I understand why you didn’t thank the stranger who brought your kids home. Even if it wasn’t necessary for him to do that, it still showed that he cared about their safety (not implying that you don’t. I am all for kids playing outside alone!). I think it’s great that there is someone who would take time out to make sure kids are safe in this world where so many would turn a blind eye to something bad happening. Then again, perhaps the situation is vastly different – being European I do note a whole lot of cultural differences between here and the USA, some of which are quite surprising! Or perhaps I am just a whole lot more chillaxed than I should be..

    • Alexandra

      I think it says A LOT that this is the FIFTH person to bring their kids home. Obvs they look too young to be outside alone or this is a dangerous neighborhood.

    • ElleJai

      If five different people brought the kids home, the neighbourhood seems bloody safe to me.

      I’d invite these people for a coffee, explain that they’re allowed, thank them for their concern, and get them on board as part of the village. That could just be me though.

  • blh

    That is way too young to he playing alone outside. I played outside when I was little but we lived in a culs de sac on a nice street and knew all the neighbors and everyone would keep an eye on each others kids. I would never let my son go outside alone where I live because its not a nice area. I don’t want to be over protective but its just not with the risk. If you want our kids to okay outside alone they should stay in your yard atleast.

  • alice

    I really liked this story and would love to hear more from the author.

    But: I did have a lot of “WTF” moments.

    Like, why would it be a disaster if your kids never meet their own personal Humbert Humbert/Peter Pan?

    And is that why you don’t want to instill a sense of “stranger danger” in them?

    Because you don’t want them to miss having an unsupervised relationship with a strange man who could potentially turn into an eccentric benefactor? :0

    • Blooming_Babies

      Humbert Humbert is the strangest reference, but I do think it’s sad that today’s children would never be allowed to have personal relationships with a kind eccentric neighbor.

    • KaeTay

      no kids can..no one said “don’t talk to anyone” I mean parents and animals are usual judges of character at least animals have a keen sense. Safety for your children is more important than a relationship with the strange person next door don’t you think?

      I was allowed to go all over town growing up but it’s not something I’d let my daughter do. Sure play with friends on the same street. Just she’s not going anywhere by herself until she’s older and had her training (aka, martial arts and such from my husband).

      I’m not going to instill in her “everyone is out to get you” but more of a “be cautious and not too trusting” persona. There’s more and more freaks out there could it be from the chemicals in our food causing brain imbalances or deformities? i don’t know. I just know it took me 5 years to conceive my daughter

    • Blooming_Babies

      Really there aren’t any more “freaks” and the crime rate is measurably lower. This is the parenting mentality that I don’t understand, that your kids don’t deserve the same freedoms you had because the world is more dangerous now. It’s a cultural shift in parenting and I personally think it’s kind of sad.

    • alice

      I agree there is a stricter parenting mentality, but it is still subjective, and it definitely has evolved with the decades.

      over the last 80 years, neighborhoods have vastly (and rightly) diversified. imagine the sense of security you would feel if you grew up in an area where you could name every single person who lived within a two block radius, where you could probably name what they did for a living, where they liked to hang out, where they lived before, etc.

      how many people can say the same about half the houses on their own street now?

      more protective parenting is, in part, a response to less cohesive communities: you don’t know who is around you, you don’t trust who is around you.

      it’s not just a cultural shift in parenting. it’s a shift in how we all relate to each other.

    • pineapplegrasss

      yes, I agree this has to do with the shift.

    • footnotegirl

      I live in the city limits of a mid-sized American city. Actually in a neighborhood that other areas think is ‘bad’. I know the names (and phone numbers, and email addresses) of everyone on my block, and several on surrounding blocks. Because we have people in the neighborhood who’ve organized the information as well as twice yearly parties. There’s also a lot of kids here, which we didn’t think to much about when we bought the place, but now that we have our daughter we are so happy to live in a place where other families share our belief that the kids should be let outside to play with eachother.

    • pineapplegrasss

      crime rate is a % and what crimes are we speaking of. Because having less drug deals on the street in NYC due to ‘stop and frisk’ or whatever doesn’t count when you’re talking about child abducting creeps. And I’d just assume that there are more creeps bc there are more people in the population? I could be wrong. I’d actually like to see some true statistics on types of crimes and comparisons- not calling you out on that, just saying

    • Bethany Ramos

      The Free Range Kids blog has positive crime statistics, and I believe more info about how kidnapping stats are overinflated. It made me happy to read them. :)

    • pineapplegrasss

      And when I was reading that it made me think about all the Amber Alerts that you hear are almost always the other parent. And although that may be a scary situation for the ones involved, not necessarily dangerous.

    • Blooming_Babies

      There is a plethora of information on this available on the web and while I’m not a direct supporter, for the subject, this is the best link. http://www.freerangekids.com/crime-statistics/

      As a whole violent crime is down measurably, there’s an interesting theory about lead poisoning and violence that attempts to offer some explanation.

      I know I’m more careful with my kids than my parents were with me, I think Alice is on the money with the disconnect from our neighbors. It does make me feel sad for my kids, that unless I actively seek it out they won’t get to know and care for our neighbors.

    • pineapplegrasss

      Yes, everybody comes home at night and drives into the garage ad closes the door type of society. So weird. We are the go out and take a walk type thankfully.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Yup, that’s the link – thanks!

    • CMJ

      Hm. I don’t think there are more freaks out there…I just think there are more people looking for said freaks and using them as an excuse to keep their kids chained to them.

      Also, 50 years ago it also took some women 5 years to conceive.

    • Justme

      If anything, I would think women would have a much easier time conceiving these days than they did 50 years ago, right?

    • moonie27

      people generally have babies older now, so there might be some issues related to that, but otherwise we’re much healthier and able to do a lot more for people who have fertility issues – so, I would imagine people did not have an easier time 50 years ago, they just didn’t talk about it as much.

    • Justme

      I don’t think there are necessarily more “freak” out there, but I do think that the 24-hour sensationalist news cycle has something to do with it. We are inundated with a constant barrage of the terrible atrocities that occur in our world because we have instant access to an infinite amount of information at our fingertips. Perhaps because of all this, it just FEELS like there are more freaks, when in fact…it’s just that the freaks have a harder time hiding.

    • alice

      i believe when you’re thinking of those charming old-timey relationships of yesteryear, between the eccentric neighbor and a child, you’re thinking of a guy who everyone in the neighborhood knew and trusted implicitly.

      decades ago, just like today, that guy was probably not the guy with Fundies in his bedroom, dating 6 women at once, and requiring the service of an 8 year old girl to rouse him awake on a saturday :)

      yet i still don’t feel there’s much lost by not seeing many of these relationships today. i dont feel like i’ve been brainwashed by a modern cynical society when i ask the question: “what exactly does a grown ass man *get* from a seeking a personal relationship with an 8 year old girl?”

    • Blooming_Babies

      I grew up in a small town as an only child and had a lot of relationships with eccentric neighbors. My back door neighbor, who was a single middle aged man, had me in his garden by myself every weekend for hours. I got a lot out of that relationship as a little girl. I think a lot of “grown ass men” would benefit from knowing and interacting with an eight year old girl. Though I do agree that my parents knew and trusted these people.

  • quinn

    I am pretty much the exact opposite of you, to the point of being overly paranoid and preoccupied with potential dangers if my kids are not constantly accounted for. I wish I could chill out because I like to think that 99% of people are good, but what if they run into that 1% who are truly evil that like to hurt children? I’m sure there is a middle ground between us, and hopefully I can reach it by the time my kids get old enough to go out into the world, as they are only 4yrs old and 10 weeks old.

  • Amanda

    I enjoyed this story. I think all we hear about are the bad stories where given a lot of freedom, and it lead to tragedy. No one is out there telling about the million other times that kids were given freedom and lots of growth happened.

    I would probably never let my daughters go and help a single bachelor alone. BUT I really struggle with this idea that kids should ALWAYS be supervised, that children’s freedom is so limited. I want my daughters to be able to go play in the alley like I did, for hours and hours, building forts and making discoveries. And I struggle with the fact that that is simply not the parenting culture right now. I find myself constantly balancing between giving as much freedom as possible and trying to avoid having CPS called on me. And that’s really unfortunate.

    • Andrea

      You just hit on a fear of mine. I let my children pay outside and down the block where there’s some decorative rocks they like to climb on and pretend. But I am constantly worried that some asshole neighbor will call the cops or CPS for not “properly supervising” my children.

    • EmmaFromÉire

      It continues to horrify me that they’re such a presence in your country. Kids need to play outside, with other kids. It’s not healthy to effectively 1984 your own children.

      I mean, kids of seven or eight play outside here, unsupervised. I certainly did, and i wouldn’t hesitate to let my own hypothetical kids do the same. Maybe it is a cultural thing, I mean a nod back to an article a few weeks ago- I find it weird people in the US wont let their cats aside, let alone their kids!

    • Andrea

      Part of it is cultural, part of it is the 24/7 news cycle which means that every child kidnapping, every child accident, every little thing is reported ad nauseaum so everyone knows about it and we have become paranoid.

    • Ddaisy

      You hit the nail on the head. I think for a lot of parents, the fear of someone calling CPS is a lot bigger and more likely than the fear their kids will get kidnapped.

      Don’t get me wrong; it’s certainly a better world when more people are concerned about your kids than wanting to hurt your kids. But you’re right–there’s gotta be a happy medium somewhere.

  • Kay_Sue

    I think that giving kids freedom is important, and what freedom you’re comfortable with as a parent is entirely up to you.

    My neighbors have a two year old; he plays in the yard, right in front of their house, while she is watching from the window. Personally, it makes me uncomfortable–I don’t let my three year old play outside of our fenced yard, because I know I can’t trust him to stay out of the street on his own. My older son is seven now, but started playing in our yard, with just the other kids, at four, and at five, he was allowed to walk across to the neighbors yard. Doesn’t make either of us wrong–we just have different comfort thresholds.

    Thanks for sharing. Interesting look at another style (so to speak) of parenting.

  • SusannahJoy

    Interesting story! I personally wouldn’t let my kids play outside when they’re that young, unless I lived in a super safe neighborhood and knew everyone (not that that means that nothing bad could happen to them, but it would make me feel more comfortable about it).

  • Shannon

    I’ll be honest. This story thoroughly freaked me out. Some may call me paranoid, Id rather be safe than sorry.

    In also willing to admit this could be because of previous experiences. An acquaintance in middle school moved away and was subsequently found murdered and buried under a neighbors house.

    I also just watched the movie “the lovely bones” a couple weeks back and it still has me all fucked up.

    • Kay_Sue

      That book fucked me. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the movie at all.

    • Alexandra

      don’t bother watching the movie, the book was good, (well, not good, but you know what I mean) in comparison the movie was pretty badly done, it’s such a weird premise I guess it just came out like one of those 48 hours specials where the “victim” is talking and just didn’t work…

    • Kay_Sue

      Thanks for the heads up!

    • FormerlyKnownAsWendy

      I actually thought the movie was pretty good, but then….the book kind of got on my nerves (I can’t really put my finger on why, but even though I liked it, it did). But I think it’s worth it to see Stanley Tucci’s performance as the bad guy; it’s a pretty great change. And her dad’s Mark Walberg, so, that’s fun……

    • pineapplegrasss

      made me think of that book too. and Stir of Echoes. Creepy movie. That shit really happens. Ariel Castro…

    • pineapplegrasss

      And my mother was exactly 8yo when she was brutally raped in the alley by the nice neighbor who lived behind them. Fucked her up good. I still deal with those consequences. Its not all made up in the movies.

    • Shannon

      Jesus, that’s horrific. I’m so sorry.

      The way I see it, yes, 99% of the population is good. It’s highly unlikely you’ll encounter the 1% and become a victim.

      But why on earth take any sort of chance like that when it comes to your children? If your child is the unlucky one and perishes or is indelibly affected for the rest of their lives because a stranger seemed harmless, how do you get past that? I know if feel directly responsible if something like that happened to my daughter because I was ok with letting her befriend the “eccentric” neighbor.

    • rrlo

      The problem is though it’s not always (or usually) the obviously “eccentric” neighbour or the harmless stranger that ends up hurting the kids. I wish it was… I truly don’t know what the answer is but what is the right amount of protection to provide to your kids? And can we categorically say four is too young to play outside in every circumstance? Both rhetorical questions – I am just thinking out loud.

    • pineapplegrasss

      Well, I think if we had to pick an age, and every street and every kid is different, 4 is really probably too young in most circumstances. Now, the type of neighborhoods that cover my city are vastly different from the country lifestyle where I grew up. We had other dangers to worry about then lol

    • Justme

      I always heard it told this way…if you’re driving on the highway and pick up a hitchhiker, the odds are slim that they’re a psychopath. But if you’re the hitchhiker and looking for a ride, the odds are high that the person picking you up is a psychopath. Does that make sense?

    • Justme

      My mother had a similar experience – people always talk about the immediate effects of a brutal rape/molestation, but hey forget how it can change the way someone parents. My mother was fiercely protective of me as a child – much more so of me than my brothers. I was also NEVER allowed to be alone with my grandfather. Ever.

    • pineapplegrasss

      Weird- us too and the grandfather thing. She still obsessed about me and my sisters’ safety..

    • Natasha B

      That book. Beautifully written. As is her other, Lucky. But, yeah, fucked me. The movie isn’t worth it.
      And I’m with Shannon. Kids should be able to play outside and run around and form relationships, but I sure as heck don’t let them go into the 40something bachelors house 5 houses down. And we live in a ‘NICE’ part of town. Last summer, a cul de sac over, a gentleman moved in with his elderly parents, was friendly to everyone, handed out Popsicles to the kiddies. Yeah, he was a registered sex offender. I’d be a little nervous letting my ‘tiny 4 yo’ roam around by herself…

  • Alexandra

    We’d just begun letting the children play by the tree three doors down, and this was the fifth time someone had returned them like runaway poodles.

    THE FIFTH TIME????? Ummmmm maybe you should listen to your neighbors and think, hey, this may not be a safe neighborhood for my kids to play in….

    • CMJ

      Or that people are just overly cautious now….I think it’s pretty presumptuous to assume that Anon Mom would let her kids play in an unsafe neighborhood.

  • pineapplegrasss

    Wow. I too had so many WTF moments when reading this. I thought it was going to be about free-range etc. I try so hard not to be too judgey on other moms bc parenting is hard. I understand latchkey kids and parents having to work and the need for freedom etc. But, there is a balance that needs to be in effect and I do think yours might be a little askew. And what did the creepy story of your 8yo past have to with letting your 4yo play outside in an admittedly bad neighborhood that had multiple bad things happen in the 70′s or 80′s? Unless its a different bad neighborhood, idk, but isn’t New Orleans notorious for being unsafe in general? And, 4yo is way too young to be playing on a city block. That is not the same thing as running around a rural farm or playing in the front yard. You are so lucky he brought her home, he could have taken her anywhere and you would never had known where. And so lucky that you didn’t get buried in fundies basement and just have a funny story from your youth and an extra 300bucks. There really isn’t any reason why a 4 and 6yo should have been outside alone and totally unsupervised when there were 2 parents home that could have been sitting on their stoop having coffee or whatnot watching their children play. I’m truly kinda stunned.

    • Shannon

      I couldn’t agree more with you.

  • Common Sense
    • rrlo

      Of course this horrific thing happened because the parents let the kids play outside. /End Sarcasm/

    • pineapplegrasss

      No, I get you. I let my kids play outside too, but come on…

    • EmmaFromÉire

      The fact that the link is from fox kinda screams an awful lot.

    • pineapplegrasss

      oh how sad and joyous for that family all wrapped into one. I’ve always told my children that if anybody gets them to do whatever they can to get away, right away, because whatevers coming next is def worse. Terrible to have to tell your kids that, but that’s the reality of it.

  • rrlo

    I enjoyed this story a lot. I think these thoughts and dilemmas are experienced by many parents. And it is good to hear stories of interacting with strangers that resulted in a positive experience.

    I am a firm believer of assessing risks accurately. When we are too paranoid – we deprive our children of many great things. We unintentionally instil a sense of anxiety in them and possibly hold them back from reaching their full potential.

    I also think we attribute more risks towards things we don’t know (eccentric, male neighbour) and less towards things we THINK we know (nice, suburban father of four).

    At the same time, safety is so important. Not just for children but for adults as well. It is important to teach children the best ways of recognizing and getting out of a bad situation.

    Like most parenting topics, this one is also something that has no easy answer.

  • Simone

    I tend to work on a likelihood / severity model.
    If the potential consequences of an adverse event are gigantic, and the likelihood is small, I still take all possible steps to prevent that event from occurring. If the consequences are small, and the likelihood is high, I tend to let things unfold as they will.
    For example if my child is likely to fall over on the grass outside, I don’t care – he can play in the yard outside alone and get a little hurt and he’ll be fine. If the risk involves serious assault, kidnap or brain injury but it’s very unlikely to happen, I still take all possible precautions – I don’t drive two blocks without seatbelts and straps, I don’t let toddlers play on the road alone.
    No helicopter mom, but a reasonable one. I think this anon mom is lucky and I hope she remains lucky.

    • Shannon

      THIS.

  • footnotegirl

    When I was a little girl… 7? 8? My best friend was a boy who went to the same school I did and lived around the block from me. We would visit eachother often. Next door to him lived two old bachelors who were friends of his family, and we would spend a LOT of time over their house. They smoked cigars, and ate godawful food (I remember a spreadable bologna that was from a can) and had terrible health. We used to sit and watch TV with them, or help them with yard work. They were WWII vets.
    Nothing untowards ever happened.
    I think one of the worst things about the cult of safety in our society today is that kids are never allowed to make friends with people from different generations. I’m all for caution, I never want my daughter to be victimized BUT with a reasonable degree of freedom, you know? I want her to have a wealth of experiences.

    • Simone

      I agree. It’s cool that you got to have those unusual experiences. But as you know, for every story like yours, there are similar stories with really, really bad endings. It sucks a lot.

    • moonie27

      I would actually think there are way, way more stories that have a good ending rather than a bad ending. (Which doesn’t minimize the bad endings, just that “for every good story there’s a bad story” is a very false analogy.)

  • FF4life

    I understand not wanting to be a helicopter mom… But if your kids want to be outside why no just take them to the park? 8 and 4 is way too young to be outside out of earshot alone. There’s a difference between trying to instill independence and freedom in your kids and being reckless with their safety. I grew up in a very rural farm community and my parents didn’t let me bike around our heavily wooded neighborhood until I was a little older than 13… Mind you, my parents grew up in the Bronx and Long Island and were running around unsupervised themselves very young..

    If your neighbors are constantly bringing your kids home when they see them outside then that’s a sign that times have changed from when you were young. Don’t be surprised if eventually instead of bringing them home, your neighbors call CPS. And if CPS gets involved nostalgia is not going to be enough of an excuse to explain why your 8 year old is supervising your 4 year old completely alone.

    • AP

      I agree 100% with the second part. A lot of times, it’s not an issue as to whether or not it’s safe or unsafe for the kids to play in the park alone, or walk to school alone- it’s whether or not the neighbors will call the police.

      A lot of the rules surrounding kids are emotional and arbitrary- chances are, no one is going to bother them playing by the tree. But CPS will. CPS might interrogate them, strip-search them, show up at your home repeatedly, or place them in temporary foster care. When you keep the kids in the yard, you’re not protecting them from Mr. Stranger- you’re protecting them from bored bureaucrats who are on power trips.*

      (I feel obligated to say that CPS does do important work, but unfortunately, they catch plenty of dolphins in their tuna nets.)

  • courtahhh

    Your logic scares me. You find your childhood experience cute and memorable. I find it disturbing and I would not want my child to have that sort of “magical” Peter Pan (creepy man) experience.

  • wannabeinthe50s

    I grew up in the 70′s, and have a six year old girl. One horrific story of a kidnapping and death is enough for me. Yes, it can happen to anyone. I can’t watch her at school every hour. But if she’s in my hands, I don’t think the world is safe for little ones to play by themselves. The worst stories I hace heard involved 9 and 10 year olds. No, I couldn’t do it.

  • Allison

    If old drunk men are concerned for you kids I would take that as a sign to step up the supervision.

  • AP

    “Today, would I let my own daughter visit a bachelor who owned a pair
    of “Fundies?” No way.”

    THIS is exactly the problem with the way we view sex offenders today. This gentleman was openly enjoying sex with consenting adult women, and somehow that makes him unsafe to children? No- that makes him less harmful to children, because he’s made it clear that he’s not sexually attracted to children!

    I wouldn’t leave a kid unsupervised with someone who I hadn’t personally vetted thoroughly, and certainly sex offenders can also have outwardly “normal” relationships, be married, etc. But to take that jump – assuming that a man who’s attracted to of age women will automatically be attracted to and prey on children- is a huge part of how we as a society have ended up viewing all men as sex offenders, much to the detriment of the many males who could be a positive influence on children, and the many children who could benefit from having a healthy male influence in their lives.

  • SarahJesness

    Kids in my parent’s neighborhood used to run around alone outside all the time. (until someone, possibly multiple people who were sick of it, started calling the police) I wouldn’t have cared, except that these kids didn’t seem to have ANY concept of street safety. They regularly played in the road and would take a long time to move out of the way of approaching vehicles. Many would even walk mindlessly into the road, in front of moving cars! As well as walking through driveways while cars are pulling out. New rule: if your kid is dumber than my cat, s/he’s not allowed outside alone.