The recent flap over a Maryland couple who let 10- and 6-year-old kids walk home by themselves from a park raises the excellent question of what childhood should look like.
In my rural county, it looks much like it did when I was growing up: Independence is the goal, and kids are given responsibility and freedom to roam on bikes, go fishing, explore creeks — basically get lost — after they have done daily chores.
The kids in my neighborhood have cellphones and video games, but at parties you see them riding ponies, hunting for fossils and throwing knives at an overturned stump (with adult supervision) rather than gazing at a glowing screen.
It doesn’t have to be a city-country thing. Cities are full of parks, playgrounds, libraries and other destinations that offer opportunities for exploration and recreation. The children whose parents are now being investigated for neglect were walking in Silver Spring, a suburb of Washington, D.C., when someone called 911.
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Now that’s a 911 tape I’d like to hear: “I’d like to report a boy and a girl walking alone on the sidewalk.” “Are they in distress?” “No.” “Do they appear injured?” “No.” “Is anyone following them?” “Just me.” “Are they asking for help?” “No.” “I’ll send an officer right away.”
We all know the — I’m going out on a limb here — mom who made that call. The head room mother, worrier in chief who forwards emails warning why it is dangerous to identify your home number as “home” in your cellphone and so on. The well-meaning, misguided soul who thinks the winner of the parenting sweepstakes is the one who can identify the most farfetched hazards, implement the most smothering preventive measures and shame everyone else into going along with them.
The goal of these “helicopter” parents is to ensure that from baby’s first day home in the web-cammed nursery until her chaperoned after-prom party, no child is ever out of shouting range of an adult ready to respond to emergencies such as hunger or a skinned elbow. They are the ones inspecting school playgrounds and demanding that any slide steep enough to be fun is removed, and that smelly recycled rubber tire mulch replace wood chips because, you know, splinters!
The ruled-by-fear brigade is winning. The Maryland couple who let their kids walk home from the park is under investigation by the Montgomery County Child Protective Services for neglect.
Compare that to this first-grade-preparedness checklist from 1979 written by child development expert Louise Bates Ames and posted by blogger Christine Whitley: “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?”
In one generation, we have recategorized a 6-year-old who can travel alone in the neighborhood from competent to victim.
Ah, but the world is a different place today than in 1979, you are thinking. You are right. It is safer.
Justice department statistics show crime has been falling steadily for the past quarter century. And yet Gallup reports that we continue to believe, erroneously, that crime is getting worse.
It’s easy to blame Nancy Grace, the CSI shows and violent video games for making us paranoid, but sensational crimes have always gotten big play in the media, from the Lindbergh baby to the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Violent TV shows and movies are also nothing new.
What has changed is that we’ve conferred legitimacy onto the hand-wringers and taken it away from responsible parents who try to foster independence. I’m not talking about leaving toddlers alone in a house or not monitoring the whereabouts of school-aged children; that was and remains irresponsible.
Now, parents who let children ride the subway, ride a bike or walk to the park alone (after practicing the route with an adult) are called “free-range” parents. Just like with chickens, the term “free range” denotes a practice that was normal for thousands of years and is now considered kind of wacky, like a “Portlandia” episode.
Some of these parents who let their children ride buses, ride bikes or walk alone in cities and suburbs give their children cards to hand out to would-be rescuers that say, “I’m not lost. I’m a free-range child.”
Groups such as the Maryland Coalition to Empower Kids and Free Range Kids have home pages that read like manifestos, even though the independence-fostering parenting style they promote has been embraced by child psychologists for decades.
In a New York Times story this week, Boston College research psychologist Peter Gray, author of “Free to Learn,” gives an example of the consequences of overprotective parenting. Gray says emergency calls to his college’s counseling office have doubled in the past five years “mainly for problems kids used to be able to solve on their own,” such as being called a name or finding a mouse in the dorm room.
Lenore Skenazy, founder of Free Range Kids, was pilloried in 2009 after she wrote a column about allowing her 9-year-old to ride the subway alone. This week she launched a 13-part TV show on Discovery called “World’s Worst Mom” in which she attempts to save “bubble-wrapped kids” and their parents from themselves.
As Skenazy tells the Times, “The message these anxious parents are giving to their children is, ‘I love you, but I don’t believe in you. I don’t believe you are as competent as I am.’”
I hope that her show is a big hit and that one day soon, the term “free range parenting” goes away because it becomes, again, normal to teach children that the world is a wonderful place that can be experienced safely with a little common sense and confidence.