If you're reading this blog, I'm betting there's a strong chance you've run across this blog, or at least some discussion of it:
It's written by that mom who let her 9 year-old ride the New York subway and bus home from Bloomingdale's by himself on a Sunday afternoon. I think she's become known as the "World's worst mom". It's actually not as crazy as it sounds, and although you may disagree with some of the specifics of what she advocates, I think she raises a couple important points for discussion: What have you done for your children today that they were capable of doing for themselves? How would allowing them some age-appropriate independence affect their self-confidence and self-esteem in the long run?
I don't know if I would let Santi ride the Paris metro by himself as a 4th grader. I don't worry about him getting kidnapped. It's more about him potentially getting lost. I guess I'd have to see when he's older how his responsibility and maturity level is, and how well he observes and remembers what happens around him.
I think Parisians are equally concerned about the welfare of their children, but in my experience it gets balanced with slightly different realities of daily life. For instance, Parents walk their children to and from school, but often the parents from the same neighborhood organize themselves so that they all take turns with just 2 to 4 parents taking charge of the group each day. This is, of course, trickier to implement in the US suburbs where you need a car to get around. Hence the school bus. And, actually, in the small French town where our nephews go to school, this walking train of kids lead by a couple of parents is actually called "The Foot Bus". So it's similar concept for getting the kids to school, but if you're a self-organized walking group, you have to get to know each other to some extent more so than if you're just driving your kids to school, I suppose.
Browsing through the Free-range blog and the other like-minded blogs it links to, I was also taken aback to learn that "playing outside" and walking to your neighborhood friends' houses is apparently a thing of the past in the US. I'm not sure I believe that to be true. There were kids in the local playground when we were visitng my folks in California, and a few walking in the street. Although now that I think of it, they were all teenagers, occasionally accompanied by a younger brother or sister. When I was little in this same neighborhood, I remember that on our block we'd all run up and down the street with no adults present, or pop into one another's houses without having our parents bring us over. My mom and dad say they wouldn't recommend this for Santi when he'll be older, because there are teenagers on our street know who drive much too fast and don't look out for pedestrians. I'm sad to hear that times have changed and families are now more isolated.
In Paris, I've found that even the dinkiest neighborhood has some kind of park with at least basic playground facilities. And they get used every day. The ones near our home are just mobbed with kids. And adults. To be clear, I don't think anyone sends younger children there alone. But the need for children to be outside, playing and getting exercise is considered essential. So much so that parents will allow their children to go without them if there is a babysitter present. In fact, if you send your child to a home daycare provider or hire a nanny, they will expect that part of their responsibilities include taking your child to the park every day. And, in fact, if you send your child to a certified home daycare, you will also be expected to sign a release allowing the caregiver to take your child (and the other children in her care) on public transportation so that she can do her daily shopping and errands (remember, this is largely a car-free city). This is supported by the city government, which explains that it's vital for these women to be able to move around the city, because they have to be available to watch these children for up to 10 hours a day and still need to care for their own families. And it's also considered important socialization for the children. My mom was horrified the first time I told her that our nanny took Santi for walks in the park without me. But from the Parisian perspective, the horror would be always keeping your child inside the house if you're not there to be with them.
I don't think it's fair to compare the two different systems directly, because they don't operate under the same parameters. Even within each country it's a totally different scenario when you contrast rural and urban, and different regions too. I do think that no matter where we live, it's important in this confusing and sometimes frightening day and age for us to keep our heads, and more importantly keep our connections to one another to foster a sense of community. Fear breeds best in the unknown. And when we're isolated from one another, from our communities, the unknown can take control.