Where have all the children gone?

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Signs of a different time. 

When I was growing up, and for nearly every generation before mine, kids were expected to entertain themselves in their free time without adult supervision. The idea that two children couldn’t walk in their own neighborhood without an adult—either because they were incapable or it was unsafe—would have been laughable. Kids were kicked out of the house and told to “be home by dinner.”

But no longer.

The world is different today—it’s much, much safer than when I was a kid. So why are American parents paranoid about letting their kids out of their sight? German reporter Clemens Wergin, Washington Bureau Chief for the German newspaper Die Welt, wrote in the New York Times about the contrast between parenting in Berlin and suburban Maryland. Back home, it wasn’t unusual for his girls, ages 8 and 11, to take the metro alone, go to the playground, or walk a mile to a piano lesson without parental supervision. But when he suggested that practice to American parents, many were “horrified.” In hundreds of emails, messages, and tweets, people from France, Israel, Australia, The Netherlands, New Zealand and elsewhere have shared with me stories of the freedom and responsibility given to children in their cultures.

Why not here? The American situation is even more confusing because such freedom was the norm for children and parents in this country not too long ago.

According to Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, children are less free today than any time in human history, with the exception of periods of slavery or intense child labor. But his research, as well as that of many others in his field, demonstrates that kids need time on their own, away from adults. Time to explore the world at their own pace and make sense of it in their own ways. By supervising kids at all times and controlling their activities, American parents, and society as a whole, reveal a disturbing lack of faith in children’s intelligence and competency. They also deny kids opportunities to experience classic adolescent milestones, such as learning to navigate their neighborhoods, going on sleepovers, getting paid jobs, and attending overnight camps—actives that social work professor and family therapist Dr. Michael Ungar sees as critical rites of passage that have aided the maturation process for generations.

Over the past year, I have heard stories from American adults who grew up “free-range” —what comedian Bill Maher notes was just called “parenting” back then—and have read many nostalgic accounts of childhood adventures. Author Mitch Albom put it best when he said that his parents would have been in jail if today’s over-protective standards had been applied when he was growing up.

Ironically, as children’s freedom outdoors has been severely curtailed, their privilege within the family has grown dramatically. Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert notes that, with the exception of ancient royal heirs, American kids may be the most overindulged brats in history. They have little to no responsibility, and are raised with fewer limits than in the past. Chores and part-time jobs are seen as wastes of time. Set bedtimes and mealtimes are quaint relics from the past. Few restrictions are set on TV and videos games, and even parents who can ill-afford to do so spoil their kids with toys, clothing, and other purchases. Behaviors that were considered non-negotiable in the past, like civility and basic respect for adults, are seen as optional or even a hindrance to parents who aim to be their kids’ best friends.

So…in spite of the reduction in crime over the past generation, AND expert agreement on the importance of structure, limits, and accountability for children, it seems that the only real boundary many modern parents enforce is the front door.

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