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Kids’ freedom, take 2


Isn’t it funny how once you start thinking about a topic, suddenly it pops up everywhere?

For the past few days I’ve been thinking and talking about kids’ vastly diminished freedom to roam. Then I tuned into a new NPR podcast, Invisibilia. The episode I listened to, World With No Fear, opens with a recording of 4 and 5-year-old children playing in the woods. Alone.

If you guessed that this recording was really old, you’d be right. It’s from the 1970s, which means that these kids are now about my age. In fact, the program informs us, one of these kids is now a dad.

A dad who doesn’t let his daughters play in the woods alone. Or leave them alone in their own yard for more than 5 minutes.

Just like I’ve been saying in endless discussions with other parents this week, there is literally no more crime now than there was when these recordings were made. The only thing that has changed is parents’ perception of danger.

We know what these kids were doing 35 years ago because a researcher, Roger Hart, studied them and actually made maps of their free range territory back in the 1970s. Many 11-year-old kids had free range of the entire village by that age.

When Hart revisited the same town 35 years later, he found that everything was the same as before. Same demographics, same crime level. Only one thing was different: Kids’ free range territory had disappeared. Kids didn’t play off their own property any more. There was no new map to make.

I literally started crying when I heard this.

Does this post have to do with living car free? Not really. And I also don’t mean to imply that my family is just like a 1970s family and that my kindergartener is off playing in the woods alone right now. I personally never let my kindergartener leave our property without one of his siblings along,* and even with them, he doesn’t get to go very far from home.

I am just sharing it because I think most of us are not really aware of the magnitude of change that has happened in this area of parening in just one generation. Change isn’t always bad and it isn’t always good. But I think it’s useful to remember that there is not only one way for things to be. When people tell me that a mile is too far for a 10-year-old to walk with a younger sibling, it’s useful to me to think, “Has that ever been done before? What were the results?”

And one other reason: I hear a lot of parents react to the story about police being called for kids out walking alone with, “You can’t be too careful.” or “Better safe than sorry.” And I think this map study illustrates that you can be too careful. Because for every gain in carefulness, we lose something too.

* Is this because I’m afraid he’ll get kidnapped? Nope. Two fears prevent me from letting my kindergartener go to the playground alone:

a) He might get hit by a car.

b) A neighbor will call the police to report me.