You know that gradual realization that you’re turning into your mother? Well, you’re wrong. Or, at least you’re wrong in one respect: You don’t give your kids nearly as much freedom as she did when you were a child.
After South Carolina mom Debra Harrell was arrested last month for letting her nine-year-old daughter play alone in the park, Slate.com asked their readers about the kinds of freedom they enjoyed as kids—and what kind of freedom they currently gave their own children. The results were just as depressing as you’d think. Even though those of us born in the 1960s and 1970s were allowed lots of independence—while getting into lots of trouble—we don’t let our own kids do the same.
It appears that the 1990s were “crunch time” when it came to reigning in our kids. In 1971, 80 percent of third graders walked to school alone—but by 1990 that number dwindled to only nine percent. The same trend goes for walking between one to five miles from home, going to the playground alone and going out at night.
Most of us grew up free-range, wandering around the neighbourhood alone, doing dumb kid stuff. Even though we were allowed to go to the playground unattended in the third grade, we don’t allow our own kids that same freedom until they are older. And yet, we lament the fact that our kids don’t have enough independence.
When I was a teen in the late 1980s, I took the subway to and from work at the Eaton Centre in Toronto at 10 p.m. twice a week. But now I’m not sure I would let my kids do the same. What exactly happened in the 1990s that changed parents’ perspective on kids’ freedom?
Hanna Rosin wrote about the “overprotected kid” for The Atlantic, stating that the Reagan era in the US had a profound effect on childhood. People started complaining about the dangers of playgrounds and forced cities to tear them down. There were a number of high-profile abduction cases with those sweet kids’ faces staring at you from milk cartons.
We know, rationally, that the number of stranger abductions has not increased in the last 40 years. Although, because of the increased divorce rates, more kids are taken by estranged parents, which means we still hear about child abductions in the media.
The Debra Harrell case has certainly brought a lot of attention of this issue. But there is one thing to remember: It’s not just about whether or not we should be free-range parents. There’s an economic obstacle here, too. For some parents, like Harrell, leaving their kids alone to play at the park while they go to work continues to be a necessity—and not a choice. That was true in the 1970s, and it’s still true to this day.
What has changed since the 1970s, however, is the public response to these actions. We shame one another. We immediately call the police when we see a child alone in the park, instead of offering a helping hand or inquiring as to the parents’ whereabouts. We don’t have moms staying at home as much, we aren’t as close to our neighbours—or our own families in some cases—and divorce rates have increased to almost half of all marriages. Society has evolved and, with it, our sense of community has changed, too.
Read more: Confessions of a free-range parent>
One of the things that the Slate.com survey found is that most people don’t want to return to the freewheeling 1970s, when parenting was more hands-off. It seems we want to find a common middle ground, but we let our fears win out and we keep our children on a short leash.
My guess is that our kids will fear turning into us just as much as we fear turning into our own parents, and they will go the opposite extreme once they have a family of their own. I can’t wait to meet my free-range grandchildren! I just hope I’m OK with it.