The lone rider
The US was in uproar after a 9-year-old boy rode the subways alone. Are we less careful?
 New York subways have a reputation as dangerous and dodgy. This is probably why some Americans were in an uproar recently following a column written by Lenore Skenazy about allowing her 9-year-old son Izzy to make his own way home on them. Izzy was left in a department store with a subway token, some money, and instructions to make his way home. The boy made it home safely, but mother Lenore was vilified as a reckless person not fit to be a parent.

In South Africa, children travel alone and in groups on various types of public transport from a similar age, often through necessity. Are these parents being reckless, or is it possible that many of us are too protective?

My 8-year-old son often walks up to a neighbourhood shop with his older brother – but I would not let him go alone. He would love to do it, and often talks about how when he is older he is going to go up to the shop with his own money and buy a treat for himself and his brother. As a younger sibling he is constantly aware of the boundaries between what his teenage brother is allowed to do and he isn’t. I believe him capable of finding his way, crossing the roads safely, and buying the milk without a problem. Why then, do I hesitate? The simple answer: other people. I fear the small chance of his bumping into a paedophile or mugger who sees a small boy as an easy target. Yet other friends, who live in what I consider to be less salubrious neighbourhoods, happily allow a child to walk a block alone to visit friends. We all tend to see our familiar territory as safer than others.

My children have travelled on minibus taxis with me a number of times – although some of my more affluent friends are scared to even get into one themselves. But as to sending a child to cross a major city alone via public transport, that does seem a little reckless.

The argument for letting Izzy ride alone is compelling in its own way: the consequences of never allowing children to face responsibility is that they may not be able to step up when the need arises. If we do not believe them capable of facing the world, how are they to develop the confidence to do so? Skenazy’s argument was that she knows her child and what he is capable of. On a website that advocates "" target="_blank">Free-range Parenting, she says: ‘The problem with this everything-is-dangerous outlook is that over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can’t do anything on his own eventually can’t.’

What she perhaps leaves out of her calculation is what she knows of other people and what they are capable of. And it takes only one bad person to ruin a child’s life forever. So for my 8-year-old, a solo journey on public transport is not an option. Even so, Skenazy’s story has made me re-examine my knee-jerk reactions and fears, and perhaps I will attempt to release my hold on my children one notch down from the strangle setting.

How old does a child have to be to travel alone on public transport? Do you think we are over-protective?

Mother of a teen and a tween, Adele Hamilton is the editor of Parent24. She always likes to know the right way to do things, but seldom succeeds in doing it quite that way.

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