During my elementary school days in the late 80s and early 90s, I walked from my home (a high-rise building) to the bus stop and took it. Later, when I was in Seattle, I was a walker. I walked alone but would join other kids in the neighborhood who walked the same way to school. We walked without an adult present. The crossing guards were student volunteers not adults. Since 2000, these concepts are unthinkable.
When I was 7 years old and my sister was 5 years old, we took our first flight from Dubai to Cochin, India without our parents. We were on the YP (Young Passenger’s program), which means that an airport staff and flight attendant escorted us through the airport and flight. We were excited about it, because we got to fly without our parents and it was a venture. We were supposed to call our parents before boarding and after we landed. During the flight, we entertained ourselves with books, toys, and a kid’s pack they gave us. It’s a kit of puzzle books, games, toys. And, of course there were in-flight movies and cartoons. The flight attendant was impressed that we were still, took care of ourselves, and once used the buzzer asking for milk. Another flight attendant saw that we were bored, so she “dressed” us up as flight attendants wearing their hats and aprons and we collected garbage with them pretending to be flight attendants. We had such a good time talking to other passengers and getting attention and candy from them. Only when you are a cute little kid, you get that. Which kid doesn’t like attention?
Another time, British Airways allowed us to go to the cockpit and hang out with the pilots for sometime. I was 10 and my sister was 8. Another childhood friend of us told us that we can do that. He asked them if that’s ok and they let him. He was about our age. This was when this was not considered a threat. Of course, we asked if we can see the cockpit. Our parents were flying with us. Maybe the flight attendant felt sorry for our parents and wanted to give them a break. Who knows? I can’t imagine traveling with two young children with a lot of energy.
Then, when I was 15, I took my first flight alone from Madras, India to Portland, Oregon. I was surprised to discover people surprised that my parents allowed me to do it. I was used to traveling in planes and knew how it worked. I had all my immigration documents and everything. Of course, my parents told me repeatedly not to lose my passport and documents. And to call at the layovers. Be watchful. Make sure I’m at the right terminal. They didn’t have to tell me not to talk to strangers and street smarts. With my urban background, that’s second nature.
Of course, when I was 6 years old, I got into big trouble for walking home from school by myself. I was supposed to wait to be picked up. I saw that the older kids were walking to and from school. I knew the way and also wanted to walk home by myself. So, I did. Being a kid, I took my sweet time. I got distracted by the flowers, then a swing on the way, and stopped to see the neighbor’s dog through the fence. Then, a woman walked out from one of the houses and asked me why I’m walking alone. I casually told her that I’m walking home from school and I don’t live too far, a few houses down. (Actually, it was much further but I was at the age where I didn’t fully grasp distance and time). She told me that my parents must be waiting for me and I should hurry home. Then, we said our goodbyes and I kept going. I walk home and ring the doorbell. My grandma answered the door and threw her arms with a big sigh of relief, “Oh my gosh, you’re home.” When I told them that I walked home, I got scolded. My uncle (who was a college student at that time) was supposed to pick me up after school. Usually one of my uncles picks me up and we walk home or travel via motorcycle. My uncle came and didn’t see me. The headmistress and teachers didn’t find me and were panicking. My family members and neighbors were going around town looking for me. A couple of the older neighbor kids were on their bikes looking around. Yikes! And here I was wanting to grow up fast and thinking it was no big deal to walk home at 6. I was told that I’m too young and it’s not safe. They told me that I can walk home from school when I am 10. Now, I had something to look forward to about turning 10.
It was a different world back then. It’s weird to think it was only the 80s and 90s. This was when relatives could come in the airport and see our flight take off. This was when a child asking to see the cockpit was not at all seen as a threat but normal childhood curiosity. People say that our culture is too fearful and we need to lay low. However, I don’t fully agree. Maybe back then people were more naive. There are perverts and psychos out there. Why take the chance on your child? Our world has changed for the worse. Before then, people were more connected. The isolation has created psychopaths. In Europe and Singapore, I’ve seen elementary aged children take the public bus to school. However, those cultures are different. In America, I wouldn’t have my elementary aged kids flying alone even under the YP passenger program. I wonder if they do it anymore. It seems like an added liability for airline companies. When my kids are teenagers, I may be okay with them traveling alone depending on their personalities. I wouldn’t allow an immature or naive teenager to travel abroad alone.
Eddie is only 6 years old and too young to be left alone without supervision. Since he is autistic and cannot speak, it is very likely that someone with malicious intentions will target him. I’m not sure about him walking home from school alone. In my days, bullies limited to taunting. Nowadays, bullies commit criminal acts like stabbing, fighting, and sexual assault. I knew someone’s middle school child who had bullies taunting her and then one of them stabbed her with the knife part of the nail clipper out. The likelihood of a bully to target a disabled peer or a person of a different race is higher. I don’t want to cage my kids. He should be allowed to play with other kids, and have his space to grow and experience life. As he gets older, he will get privileges such as going out with friends. It all depends on his maturity and knowing who he hangs out with. Fear shouldn’t be what drives me. Yet, I cannot afford being naive. Regardless of what people say about fearfulness, overreactive parents, and free-range kids movement, you cannot deny that things have changed.