Would you let your child play at the park without an adult accompanied by a friend or older sibling at age 6, assuming that the park was a few blocks from your home?
A parent in Maryland is being cited for allowing a child under age 8 “to be locked or confined in a dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle while the person charged is absent” even though the children were not confined but were instead walking home from the park. The park was a few blocks from their home, and a “concerned parent” called the police when they saw the 10 year old and 6 year old walking home from the park alone. Police picked up the children and drove them home, and Child Protective Services was called to investigate. The whole infuriating story is chronicled at reason.com by “World’s Worst Mother” and founder of Free Range Kids Lenore Skenazy.
The reason that the parents are being charged with a citation that seems unrelated to the “crime” that they committed is that, in point of fact, letting your kids walk home from the park alone is not a crime. Law Enforcement and Child Welfare Agencies are stuck trying to create crimes that don’t exist because laws that were created decades ago when we didn’t live in constant fear don’t reflect actions they believe ought to be illegal in today’s climate of hyper-protective fear mongering. At the same time, Lawmakers don’t want to update statutes that they know will almost certainly open the can of worms that is our increasing Nanny State, so instead they choose to just “re-imagine” and “re-interpret” the spirit of existing legislation.
When I was a child, I routinely walked to and from the neighborhood park. I walked to school every morning, crossing a highway on my four block trek- and back again each afternoon. I don’t think I am unique in this respect.
Today when I find myself at my children’s school after class is done, there are cars lined up nearly a block into the distance- only a handful of children walk home from school. On the occasions I accompany my children to our neighborhood park, rarely do I see a child without a parent; of greater concern my children are often the only kids there at times when a playground ought to be bustling with activity. Children are increasingly being robbed of the chance to play. Parents lament children’s fixation with video games and television, but few consider that their own attitudes and actions have made sedentary play the only available outlet for their children.
Thirty years ago, a parent generally erected fewer roadblocks around their child to explore the world. Children didn’t grow up with the invisible (and sometimes visible!) leashes that confine them to life within a stone’s throw of a parent or guardian. I think this new reality makes sedentary play a symptom of our attitudes toward children exercising their autonomy rather than children exercising their imagination or body.
Worse than the effect that leashing our children has on their physical health, it also leads to teenagers and young adults who have no understanding of how to manage their lives responsibly. Childhood is where we lay the foundation for successful adult decisions and habits. If you are not letting your child walk home from school alone, or play with friends alone- you are really absolving your child of the responsibilities of self-reliance. These children- children who have never known unsupervised decisions, have never had to make responsible choices on their own- are going away to College or transitioning into the world without the requisite toolbox to be properly functioning adults. A ten year old child is ready and should be capable of navigating around their neighborhood. A five year old is old enough to be alone with older responsible siblings. But you won’t have older, responsible siblings if those children are never allowed to make choices and act independently.
It’s this reasoning that informs how I parent my children. My children are expected to make their own decisions- and to do things on their own without my wife or me hovering within striking distance.
Free Range Kids is a movement that is gaining traction in the wake of several recent news stories where children have been prevented by authorities from learning and playing in an age appropriate way. Media outlets seem to have latched onto the story of the parents from Maryland, and this is sure to be an opportunity to bring some sense into the way we deal with parents who want to raise autonomous and responsible children.
I expect that my commitment to the principles of the Free Range Kids initiative will lead me to talk about this subject several more times on this blog, and I want to show my support for it by keeping a link to their site on my sidebar using their logo from reason.com. Though I have noticed that Lenore and I don’t see eye to eye on every single issue- and I will discuss why I don’t agree with her stand on corporeal punishment in a future post- I think it is an initiative worth being supported and worth being investigated by parents who visit this blog.