As a child growing up in a small Boston suburb, I have fond memories of wandering the local woods with friends, riding my bike to the corner store for treats, or just hanging out with neighborhood friends until dinnertime. Many others in my generation have similar memories, and talk nostalgically about their childhood as the “good ’ol days.” But these same people, who are raising children themselves now, are also quick to note that their own kids will likely not experience the kind of carefree, independent fun they enjoyed in childhood.
Why not? Because far fewer parents today allow their children the kind of long leash they were given while growing up. Thanks to a non-stop bombardment of bad news, they are terrified something horrible is going to happen as soon as their child is out of sight, according to Keri Augusto, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology and counselor education at Becker College in Worcester.
“As our access to information increases via the Internet, awareness of every little accident comes pouring into our mailboxes, and parents experience a cognitive bias, or thinking error, that social psychologists refer to as ‘the availability heuristic,’” said Augusto, a parent herself. “When an event is emotionally charged, it becomes more ‘available’ in our memories, and we have a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of the event occurring again. Stories about hurt children necessarily evoke emotion and often rise to the top of the newsfeed.”
As a result, many parents today are quick to note the risks associated with letting a child roam free outside without an adult. What if the child is kidnapped during an unsupervised walk around the block? Although the dangers a child faces each day are no higher today than they were 20 or 30 years ago, awareness of them has done a number on American parents’ psyche. A quick poll on social networks made it clear that many parents today are sufficiently frightened.
“I feel like I’m aware of more dangers now than my mom was when I was growing up,” said Cristina Cabrero, a Worcester mom with four children. “I always fear kidnapping, rape, murder, child trafficking, drunk driving, sexual predators, online predators, shootings, home invasions, etc. I want them to have their own experiences as children, but I’m always reminding them of the dangers out there. And when I do that, I wonder how much is it affecting their emotional state.”
While the fearful events Cabrero notes are certainly horrible, and do sometimes happen, statistics show that the risk of many — particularly kidnapping and so-called “stranger danger,” the ultimate fear of most parents — are statistically tiny. For example, FBI figures note that between 1993 and 2012, violent crime was down 48% and murders were down 50% over the previous 10-year period.
And statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice reveal that among missing children reports each year, most are children who have simply miscommunicated with parents or gotten briefly lost. Of those actually kidnapped, 9% are kidnapped by a family member in a custody dispute and 3% are abducted by non-family members, usually during the commission of a crime such as robbery or sexual assault. The kidnapper is often someone the child knows. Only about 100 children, a small fraction of 1%, are kidnapped each year in the type of “stranger danger” abductions we hear about in the news.
But statistics be damned in the eyes of many parents today, including those who want to get involved in how other parents are raising their children. In a case out of Maryland recently, parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were charged with neglect after it was reported that they allowed their 6- and 10-year-old children to walk home alone from an area park (the charges were eventually dropped). The case is one of many in recent years that points out that our current child-rearing society is simply uncomfortable with allowing parents to give their kids a bit of unsupervised freedom.
“If I were to send my 5-year-old niece out into the woods to explore by herself for an afternoon, I might be charged with neglect,” Augusto said. “Certainly I would be looked down upon by other parents, and someone would likely admonish, ‘She could have been taken or hurt.’ The truth is, abduction by strangers is no more common now than it has ever been, and the risk of my niece getting injured while running through the forest is about the same as it was when I spent my youth exploring the rocks, stumps, and the swampy brook that ran through the wooded acre behind my own house. I did it alone or with other 5-year-olds. And I did it often.”
The notion that children are constantly in peril and need an adult to supervise them every moment all the way up until college is a unique attitude created by this current generation of parents, according to Lenore Skenazy, author of the book Free Range Kids and founder of the Free Range movement, which advocates allowing children more independence in daily life.
“This is a new way of thinking of children,” Skenazy said. “We used to think they had enough wits to get around or play in the woods and come back out alive. But somehow the thinking switched to seeing them less as humans and more as human-like dolls.”
Skenazy found herself in the crosshairs of a generation of scared parents in 2008 when she made headlines for a New York Sun column she authored in which she explained why she allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the New York subway on his own. The outrage, and resulting comments, ranged from accusations of child abuse to calling Skenazy “The Worst Mother in America.” All of it proving to Skenazy that a change in mindset among American parents was due.
“When my parents were raising me, there wasn’t a 24/7 media cycle,” she noted. “After the Adam Walsh and Etan Patz abductions, the media found it was worthwhile to keep showing us a story of a white, middle-class child that has been abducted. That’s what gets attention; when a child that is small and cute and white is missing.”
Should we be allowing young children more freedom to explore as we did as children? Skenazy thinks so, and founded the Free Range movement (freerangekids.com) as a call to action to this generation — imploring them to give kids more space, time, and freedom to be kids.
“Between cars and technology and culture norms, kids aren’t allowed off the grid — ever,” Skenazy said. “And if you don’t get some time on your own, you don’t really get to figure out on your own what fascinates you, what turns you on.”
Augusto, who counsels students at Becker College, notes many kids now present with anxiety and fear disorders. She thinks a change in parenting mindset needs to happen now, or we risk stunted emotional development in the name of overprotection.
“The problem with this trend toward over-protective parenting is that it denies children some of their basic developmental opportunities,” Augusto noted. “An early childhood education researcher in Norway, Ellen Beate Sandlotter, provided an evolutionary perspective on children and risky play. She concluded that children have a need to do things they find risky and exciting, a need to feel a little scared and dangerous. This goes back to our understanding of social development and the child’s need to develop a sense of mastery over their world. A child does not need to be in danger, but they need to feel as if they are in a little danger so they can overcome that fear and develop a sense of independence and competence, so they can learn to take responsibility and see the connections between cause and effect. Sandlotter described a number of different experiences that help children discover this sense of efficacy, including exploring heights, handling dangerous tools, and exploring on one’s own. And she further warns that if parents do not allow children to experience these things because we vowed to ‘protect’ them, then we may end up raising a generation of fearful, anxious children.”
As part of her speaking around the country about the Free Range movement, Skenazy challenges parents to choose one activity they would be comfortable allowing their child to do independently. It could be walking the dog alone, or cooking a meal without help. Let them do it once, and if it goes OK, build on that experience and allow little bit more freedom from there. In doing this, she says, you’ll be giving them a rare gift not often given these days.
“Unsupervised time,” she said, “that’s a real treasure that is dwindling. I put it up there with the ice caps.”