Every day, most Israeli kids head to school. Some get dropped off by their parents, others take a public bus or ride a bike, and many get there on foot, often alone, sometimes accompanied by an older sibling.
Call it limited-range parenting.
When an American 10-year-old accompanied his 6-year-old sister to the library in a Maryland suburb a few weeks back, the local police ended up bringing the children home and threatening the parents with social services.
The event prompted numerous Facebook threads, blogs and tweets about “helicopter” parenting versus “free range” parenting, pitting parents who hover closely over their offspring against those who want their kids to roam free, or at least as far as the local playground.
From afar, it’s easy for Israeli parents to scoff at overprotective American parents who don’t or can’t let their kids walk home from school by themselves.
But many factors are involved in this discussion, and a range of urban and suburban parents from Switzerland and Philadelphia as well as Jerusalem, Modiin and Tel Aviv weighed in on how their surroundings — as well as practical concerns like one-car families, reliable public transportation and the trustworthiness of each individual child — helps determine what kind of independence they allow their own children.
Thoughts on free-range-kid parenting?
The impromptu debate also offered an opportunity to look at some of Israel’s parenting methods, and why Israeli kids are still allowed — by and large, and usually as of a certain age — to roam on their own.
For while Israeli parents worry about national and political security — and about their kids entering the army at age 18 — those concerns don’t usually translate into limitations on kids in their immediate surroundings.
“The culture in Israel is much more free and neighborhood-centric,” said Asher Ben Arieh, a professor of social work at Hebrew University who has researched child well-being for much of his career. “The Israeli community still exists and therefore kids are a part of it.”
Israeli neighborhoods tend to still be safe places, said Ben Arieh. There are exceptions, of course, such as December’s arrest of a Jerusalem taxi driver who is suspected of kidnapping and sexually abusing a 7-year-old girl after picking her up from school where she was waiting for her ride home.
Yet there is a sense of security in most neighborhoods. Kids often recognize their neighbors and even if they don’t, there is an ingrained tradition of looking out for one another, as exists in many places.
In Israel, precautions are taken to protect children when they’re out on their own. Schools have older kids serving as so-called “gold guards,” crossing guards garbed in neon yellow vests at crosswalks close to schools who offer a safe route for children walking on their own to school each morning. Public service announcements are broadcast on the radio, recommending parents that only kids aged nine and up can ride bikes and cross streets by themselves.
The message for parents is: allow independence, but teach children to be careful and aware of their surroundings.
“I know that if my kid gets lost, he’ll be found by neighbors, and not just those who live right next to us,” said Shira Katz Vinkler, who heads the Yerushalmit Movement, an organization working to improve life for Jerusalem’s residents.
She’s not alone. People send their teenagers out on Friday nights, often letting them stay out until midnight and later. Runners can be seen jogging at all hours. And kids, usually from the age of 8 or 9, but sometimes even younger, will walk the dog, run over to a friend’s house, pick up some milk at the corner store, or walk to school on their own.
“Israel still has a strong sense of community, it’s united,” said Ben Arieh. “We’re still in apartments, there are more connections between neighbors and kids go to school in their neighborhoods.”
That’s not an accident, at least not in Jerusalem, said Katz Vinkler, whose organization has been active in helping create a livable city, particularly for families with kids.
“We don’t look at other cities, but we do work with residents to create active communities, to make residents feel part of the city,” said Katz Vinkler. “From the outside, it would seem that it’s a real goal to make Jerusalem secure, because of the things that happen here once in a while.”
When times are tense, as they were during the Second Intifada, when bus bombings and other attacks were frequent and terrifying, parents often chose to drive their kids rather than let them take the bus. Ditto for this past summer, when the war in Gaza upped the chances of rockets and sirens during all hours of the day in much of the country.
In some neighborhoods it’s easier than in others to create that close-knit sense of security, said Katz Vinkler. There are neighborhoods with all the necessary facilities — schools, shopping and community centers — built within walking distance of peoples’ homes, and accessible without having to cross major streets, or with adequate, safe crosswalks.
The perfect Israeli neighborhood is like the modern version of a kibbutz or moshav, Israel’s cooperative communities. They have all the benefits of the urban lifestyle, but are cohesive and small enough to offer kids a sense of independence.
“They’re built in an urban manner that allows kids to walk home,” said Katz Vinkler.
The classic Jerusalem example is Baka, she said, referring to the southern Jerusalem neighborhood.
“In Baka, most of your life is on foot and you recognize most people,” said Katz Vinkler. “The ability to live that way offers a lot of security in which to raise your kids.”
Katz Vinkler is also pleased by another local development, in which schools and parents coordinate walking carpools, picking up kids, on foot, from several pre-determined meeting points and getting to school together.
“That development shows that schools aren’t quite close enough to kids’ homes,” she said. “But it also shows a desire to have a quality of life in which you’re not getting into cars in order to get to school or an after-school activity. It teaches them to walk, and when they’re a little older, they can do it themselves.”
Not every neighborhood offers the same easy access. In Jerusalem, Katz Vinkler pointed out neighborhoods such as Pisgat Zeev at the northern end of the city, and Gilo at the southern end, both sprawling, suburban neighborhoods where it can be hard to walk from one end to the other, and which can affect a parent’s ability to let their child be independent and get somewhere on their own.
Other cities, like Tel Aviv, arguably Israel’s most urban city, have a strong pedestrian character, said Gal Gur, an attorney who runs the Parents Lobby, an organization dedicated to promoting issues of concern to families in the city.
“Tel Aviv is small, it’s not New York, so kids can mostly walk around and feel secure,” said Gur.
Yet residents have been grappling with some difficult developments that are making it hard for adults and kids to walk from school to home.
Gur pointed to the city’s push to have more bike riders and the creation of biking lanes, narrow paths along the edge of many streets and sidewalks that are creating “chaos on the sidewalk,” she said. “The city put the bike lanes on the sidewalks, there’s no separation and no end of accidents.”
“People want to let their kids walk alone and give them independence, but they’re scared of the bike riders,” she said. “You can’t let your child ride on the street or the sidewalk and it’s not safe to let him walk because who knows what will happen to him.”
Bike lanes aside, there is no law in Israel relating to the age at which children are allowed to walk — or bike — outside by themselves. One organization, Beterem – Safe Kids Israel, suggests not letting children under nine cross streets by themselves, or walk home alone.
According to the Council for the Child, a nonprofit organization that looks at any subject regarding minors in Israel, there is a law that states that a child under six can’t be left at home alone.
The law, however, doesn’t determine what is proper supervision, under what conditions or for how long, said Mira Karni, a social worker who oversees the Child Rights Commission at the Council. But if a family is neglecting or harming their child, there is an obligation to report it to social services, said Karni, and the agency then works to help the family improve their parental functioning.
Still, there is little data in Israel about families and their decisions about children’s independence, she said.
“Naturally, different families tend to allow their children more or less independence according to where they live, the nature of the child, and different constraints,” said Karni. “Given the requirements of most families, in which both parents need to work, it can be hard to find the right solutions for kids. And because of lack of a proper solution because of money, they may leave kids at home at an earlier age than they would want.”
Or with an older sibling, pointed out Katz Vinkler.
It isn’t unusual for older siblings to be in charge of their younger brothers and sisters for a couple of hours each day, until a parent gets home from work. Most schools finish between 2:30 and 3 p.m. each afternoon, except for Tuesdays, which is youth movement day, when many schools end at 1:30 p.m., and Fridays, when school is over at 12 p.m. Some parents leave lunch in the fridge, checking in by phone to see if the kids ate their schnitzel or meat patties, and whether they’ve started on their homework.
“In Israeli culture, there are a fewer nannies and babysitters,” said Katz Vinkler. “Older siblings have a big job, they have to be responsible.”
It’s one of the reasons the culture of the cellphone is so prevalent in Israel, she added.
One in four Israeli children between the ages of 6 and 8 has their own cellphone, according to a recent survey of 920 Israeli mothers of children aged 6 to 14 by Israeli cellphone company Pelephone. The number increases to one in three children for ages 9 to 11 and 91 percent for ages 12 to 14.
Some 93% of the mothers said they gave their children cellphones so that they can have peace of mind and be able to contact them when they want.
Giving kids cellphones offers a certain sense of security to parents who allow their kids to get around on their own, offered Katz Vinkler.
“There are a lot of cons to the prevalent use of phones in Israel, but it also allows parents to be calmer and to allow independence,” she said. “When we were kids, we were very independent, no matter where we were. But now the awareness is different. There’s suspicion, about security, about strangers, and the phone offers one kind of answer if we want to let our kids be free and independent.”