Free the Children

June 6th, 2009

I divide my time between Texas and Belgrade, Serbia — with most of the time in Belgrade.  Life here is pretty much the same as life in any medium-sized American city.  There are obvious differences, of course, in language, culture, history, etc.  But life, as human beings live it, isn’t much different.  There are some exceptions, of course.  One is the relative lack of paranoia regarding children.

Not that long ago in America, children beyond a certain age were pretty much free agents when they weren’t in school.  I remember escaping the confines of home and parental supervision, for the most part, at the beginning of the day and wandering back in before dark.  The only real restrictions I had were along the lines of not going to certain places, returning by a certain time, etc. 

Things are different now.  Most American parents are paranoid about the safety of their children, often not letting them out of their sight except to go to school or visit the home of friends with carefully vetted parents.  One important cause of this paranoia is the dramatic coverage of child abductions and murders that dominates certain popular TV shows.  This coverage doesn’t reflect reality.  For example, in one recent year only 115 children were abducted in the U.S. by strangers or slight acquaintances and kept for a period of time or killed.

Each case is a tragedy, of course, but the odds of that tragedy befalling a specific child are realistically almost zero.  Severely restricting the freedom of children likely causes more harm in terms of instilling unreasonable fear and limiting the social development that occurs through free interaction with their peers.

It’s different here.  Among the buildings in my complex, in other public areas, and along sidewalks it’s common to see children alone or in small groups.  There’s usually no parent on guard, ready to respond to imagined threats and viewing every passing stranger with suspicion.  It’s a comfortable, easygoing environment where kids are free to be kids. 

These things came to mind today as I noticed that someone has erected two swing sets for the local kids in a central area between the buildings where I live.  It’s likely that whoever put up the swing sets did so at personal expense, without asking anyone’s permission and without doing any paperwork.  If a child is injured on the swing sets, it’ll be treated as a normal injury children sometimes suffer while playing.  No lawyers, no lawsuits — another big difference.

The columnist Lenore Skenazy caused a media stir a while back when she wrote about letting her nine-year-old son find his way home alone in Manhattan by subway and bus.  Some of the reactions she got were extreme, reflecting the insistence of paranoid parents that everyone else share their fears.  Skenazy responded in a column:

Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating — for us and for them. …

Justice Department data actually show the number of children abducted by strangers has been going down over the years. So why not let your kids get home from school by themselves? …

We become so bent out of shape over something as simple as letting your children out of sight on the playground that it starts seeming on par with letting them play on the railroad tracks at night. In the rain. In dark non-reflective coats.

The problem with this everything-is-dangerous outlook is that over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can’t do anything on his own eventually can’t.

Meantime, my son wants his next trip to be from Queens. In my day, I doubt that would have struck anyone as particularly brave. Now it seems like hitchhiking through Yemen.

Here’s your MetroCard, kid. Go.

Despite the advantages of modern life, I’m glad I grew up when I did.  At least I was free.

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5 Responses to “Free the Children”

  1. Larry |

    Tom your so right.
    My mother and father gave little brother and I freedom to roam as we pleased. On one considered it to be anything but normal. I enjoy writing about my youth because it was one big adventure that I enjoyed immensely.I wish my grand kids could have such freedom but common sense says its for the child’s own safety to deprive he/she of such freedoms.

  2. Lisa |

    Tom and Larry, I agree. I think our increasingly protective society is one reason behind the increase in childhood obesity. Because i grew up on a bike, I had my then 4 year old daughter follow me through the neighborhood on her bike while I walked. We did this together for months. I taught her traffic and stranger safety. In time she was exploring the neighborhood on her own but unfortunately was the only one doing so. Other parents looked askance at me for giving her freedom and independence. What the parents don’t realize is that it is far more dangerous to allow their kids free access to the internet.

  3. Anonymous |

    Part of the reason that these Megan’s Law cases make the news is that they are so rare. If they were ubiquitous, we would hear about them the way we hear about traffic.

    When I was investigating child abuse in Houston, I’d get about 30 cases a month, and file charges perhaps one time every couple of months. That’s 60 reported cases of child abuse with only 1 of them rising to the statutory definition of “injury to a child.” My case load and arrest record were the norm for our squad. The news outlets sensationalize the handful of cases that are legitimate and PRESTO – there’s a national crisis of child abuse.

    We ran around the woods and swamp behind my house like a bunch of wild Comanches, the way kids have done for a couple centuries in this country. Getting covered in red bugs and mosquito bites and poison ivy was part of the drill. We fished for gar and bowfins, and hunted squirrels with .22s and 20 gauges. We didn’t need Ritalin or Adderol because our cavorting was considered normal.

    One of our neighbors had a small pond, maybe 5 acres. We built our own boat thinking of the fun we were going to have paddling around that little hole. To judge by today’s standard, it is simply amazing that none of us hurt ourselves with all of the hammering and sawing. It sank immediately, but we didn’t care because we were having fun.

    Do kids even really have fun any more?

  4. Tom |

    You’re right in every respect. I did virtually all those things, too. I can’t imagine being cooped up and over-supervised the way kids are today. Add the natural lure of TV and the internet, and it’s no surprise that kids live the way they do.

    And have you noticed that the dramatic, near-hysterical over-coverage of this handful of cases is generally limited to cute white kids?

  5. doris |

    Funny how if you are disagreed with on this subject, you edit my comments out. I strongly disagree with you on this subject, as you know, and whose opinion is more valid on this subject, a man with no children to worry about or a woman with lots of them and experience on this subject?

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