Brett Berk

NPR: “On Lockdown”

I recently held a ten-year reunion at the preschool I used to run in Manhattan”s East Village. My once cuddly four and five year old charges arrived transformed into urban teens. They had wildly colored hair, sticker-covered skateboards, cell-phones and iPods. And attitude.

I was delighted at how well they”d turned out.

I”d intended to take full credit for their successes, but studying these kids, I felt obliged to congratulate their parents too. Yet as I looked around the classroom, I saw that few had arrived with their moms or dads. I asked the kids where their parents were.

“I dunno,”¯ one boy said. “The Laundromat”¦?”¯

The fact that these teenagers walked the streets of New York alone only enhanced my pride. I”d read a host of studies in recent years, including one published in March by the British Government, defining the tight tether contemporary parents keep on their kids. A full third of these teens have never left the house alone, for fear of being diddled, snatched, or flattened. But kids need unstructured alone time, to explore their imaginations, and to improvise and integrate responses to new experiences.

Our East Village neighborhood certainly has its share of “risks”¯: aggressive speed-chess hustlers, bitter aged Punks, and even the occasional vomiting addict. Yet my former students negotiated it with poise and ease. They”d been walking its blocks since they were little, getting to know their neighbors and local storekeepers: the butcher, the baker, the fetish bondage gear maker. They knew to travel in groups. They knew to cross the street when they spotted a man ranting at his bagel.

Rather than being insulated from perceived peril, they”d been given tools to be aware of it and opportunities to respond to it, so instead of feeling paralyzed, they were engaged, exuberant, and self-possessed.

I asked some of the kids how they”d figured all this out. One fourteen year-old girl smirked and nodded out the window. The same window from which we used to gauge the start of naptime by waiting for the woman in head-to-toe tie-dye to walk by on her way to work.

“Duh,”¯ she said, spinning the wheels on her skateboard. “All the interesting stuff happens outside.”¯