Recently, I was surprised to see news articles about two parents in Maryland who landed in hot water when they allowed their young children to walk home from a park about a mile from their suburban home. Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are practitioners of the Free-Range Kids movement, and believe that their children will benefit from growing up without being constantly under adult supervision. The Meitivs' children were ten and six at the time, and were picked up by police when they were halfway to their home, after someone called in to report the kids walking alone. The family was found to be responsible for child neglect in that case, and a few months later ran into trouble again, when they allowed their children to play in the park unsupervised, and the kids were picked up by the police and held by Child Protective Services for several hours.
This, and other stories of parents being investigated, has stirred up a nationwide debate over appropriate parenting behaviors in our modern world. At the center of the issue is whether or not it's safe to allow kids to engage in certain activities without constant adult supervision. Most adults beyond a certain age probably remember playing with their peers unsupervised, and being granted a certain amount of freedom, which has fallen out of fashion with many parents today. I personally recall it being normal for me and my friends to hop on our bikes and ride several miles together, or to walk to each other's homes. We definitely played at parks and in each other's yards without adults present to monitor us at all times, and that was in the 1970s and '80s, not some mythic "Good 'Ol Days" period from decades before.
Kids' lives are complex, and we developed our own social groups as we learned what activities were safe and which contained elements of risk. According to many child development experts, children need to be allowed a certain amount of freedom in order to learn important life skills such as a sense of independence and willingness to take chances. There has even been a recent study that seems to indicate that creativity is diminished by too much adult supervision, so the balance between protecting a child from the real dangers in our world and allowing them enough independence to thrive and learn seems to be an important one. A very interesting article which appeared in The Atlantic profiles "Adventure Playgrounds," which allow children to play in an environment where they can interact in ways that many modern parents would probably consider risky. Proponents of such playgrounds believe that they teach kids to measure risk and consequences, important things for young children to learn.
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Nearly all parents fear for the safety of their children, or at least want to protect them from the perceived dangers of our society, so it's fair to ask whether the world is a more dangerous place today than it was in previous generations, and if it is, what is a reasonable way to protect kids without smothering them?
According to almost all of the available data, kids in America today are safer than in any other time in recent history. That's almost shocking to consider, when it seems like we are bombarded daily with horror stories involving the abduction, molestation, or murder of a child. But that has as much to do with how quickly information is spread via the Internet, than as an indication that the world has grown less safe for kids. An excellent article from The Washington Post illustrates that child mortality in the United States has fallen by nearly half since 1990, after more than two decades on the upswing since 1969, and that includes deaths from homicides. It's been proven that many of the threats to children that many people project onto imagined strangers are more likely to be caused by a family member or other adult close to the child. It appears that many people who are convinced that kids must have constant adult supervision in order to be safe are being paranoid. That's understandable, since their kid's welfare is on the line, but it often doesn't stand up well to the facts.
Risk assessment seems to be a major factor in protecting children from the dangers of our world, and of course, every situation is different. A child being raised in an upscale suburb like the one the Meitiv kids live in probably faces fewer dangers walking a mile home than children growing up in a dangerous part of a major city, and a different strategy would probably be in order. It's no one else's concern if a parent feels compelled to be extremely cautious and controlling of their child, but it becomes a problem when people assume parents are being neglectful toward their kids or exposing them to danger simply because they allow them to function without direct adult supervision at all times.
The police and Child Protective Services aren't the bad guys here, they only do what they should, and investigate reports of neglect or abuse. There aren't any laws in Texas specifying that kids under a certain age are prohibited from walking or playing without adults present, and that's probably a good thing. So many factors effect whether a specific situation is dangerous or neglectful, and every case should be evaluated based on the circumstances.