The stars have started to pop through the sky on a warm evening in Minneapolis, and almost everyone on our residential street has either gone inside or retreated to the mosquito-free comfort of their screened-in porches. That is, everyone except my kids, Peter, 12, Henrik, 10, and Luisa, 7, who are dashing down the sidewalks with flashlights. Or at least that's what I imagine they're doing. Because I'm not with them, I can't say for certain if they are spraying water into a mud pit, or building a fort, or even pounding each other with water balloons.
That my children are outside by themselves isn't some isolated kids-gone-rogue event. My family operates on a sliding scale of independence pegged to each child's confidence and common sense. As long as Peter can find a friend to tag along, he's allowed to explore the lakeshore a few blocks away or bike to the convenience store. Henrik can wander anywhere on our block and cross the two streets that don't have a lot of traffic. Luisa walks to her friend's house two doors down. All three get home from the bus stop together without me there to meet them. My husband, Walter, and I moved here precisely because it is safe enough for them to enjoy these solo forays, which we believe are good for them.
We're in a tiny minority, though. Today most kids' lives are monitored 24/7, and independent wanderings exist only in the pages of Little House on the Prairie. Nearly a third of San Francisco Bay Area parents cite safety as the reason they drive their 10- to 14-year-old children to school rather than let them walk or bike unsupervised, according to one survey. When a Mississippi 10-year-old was seen making his way alone to soccer practice a few years back, anxious moms called 911. Other hallmarks of relaxed childhood are also disappearing. Paper routes? Many news companies demand that you be at least 18.
That's a huge shift from the 1970s, when I was allowed—encouraged—to ride my bike and take the city bus all over Minneapolis. In those days, parents accepted lumps and bumps as part of childhood, says Helene Guldberg, Ph.D., author of Reclaiming Childhood (Routledge). But as any mom who has ever gotten the stink eye from a stranger knows, that live-and-let-live spirit has been replaced by a widespread belief that every childhood mishap is the parents' fault. "There's this myth that we can prevent anything bad, from disappointment to death, if we only watch our children more carefully," says New York City's Lenore Skenazy, a blogger and author of Free-Range Kids (Jossey-Bass), who was labeled "America's worst mom" when she blogged about letting her 9-year-old son take the subway alone.
Adding fuel to the fire, many parents have bought into the idea that the world is full of predators waiting to harm our kids. But the fact is U.S. violent crime rates have plummeted almost 50% since they peaked in 1992. And the number of children who are kidnapped or murdered each year is so small that every case makes big news. Of course, even one tragedy is one too many. And sure, my heart pounds harder whenever I call out the front door, expecting them to be right outside, and nobody answers. Then I remind myself that some 200,000 kids age 14 and under are injured every year in car accidents, yet my family still logs plenty of hours in our minivan.
The numbers don't support keeping my three on a short leash, but that doesn't mean we let them run wild. Peter's trips to the store required several test runs with me in tow, and before Luisa knew the drill, I called my neighbor to make sure she arrived safely. And I wouldn't be allowing any of these outings if I didn't believe my kids were capable of handling them.
Walter and I also factored in expert evidence that says too many restrictions would be harmful. If my three always had be within my sight, for example, they'd spend a lot more time indoors just so I could plow through my to-do list. "Getting outside gives them infinite opportunities to explore," says Todd Christopher, author of The Green Hour (Roost Books). Tethered to me, they'd have fewer chances to hang out with pals and engage in creative play, which is crucial for developing constructive problem solving, creativity and critical thinking, says Susan Linn, Ed.D., author of The Case for Make Believe (New Press). And unmonitored friend time, even if it's rowdy and chaotic, is a vital part of childhood, adds Stuart Brown, M.D., the founder of the National Institute for Play. "At these times kids start to know themselves and how they relate to others," he says.