I don't know how old my friends and I were when we started hanging out at the creek bordering the edge of our suburban town—9, maybe? We were young and scrappy enough to scamper down the desolate dirt ravine on our bottoms and hop over the occasional empty liquor bottle so we could get to the good stuff: squirmy newts, schools of minnows, the giant drainpipe we dared each other to enter but never did.
You know who doesn't show up in those memories? An adult.
That's what made adventures like these adventures. Unsupervised lemonade stands, the secret alleyways we explored between neighbors' garages, the thrill of deliberately getting lost on our bikes. We had so much fun back then, my friends and I recall. Then, inevitably, one of us drops the buzzkill question: Could you imagine letting our kids do any of that?
Kids are living in a safer time than we were ... so why are we so scared? Childhood mortality is at its lowest point in decades, according to the United States Department of Health & Human Services. The years between 2003 and 2011 saw a significant decline in kids' exposure to assault, bullying, and sexual victimization, say researchers from the University of New Hampshire in Durham. While the FBI's National Crime Information Center for Missing & Exploited Children notes that there were 466,949 reports of missing children in 2014, that number becomes far less scary when you consider the vast majority go missing as a result of misunderstood directions or plans, or, sadly, run away. In spite of admonitions about "stranger danger" (a term that even the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children opposes), most abductions are committed by family members or others known to the child. According to the Polly Klaas Foundation, about 100 children are kidnapped in the U.S. each year in the stereotypical stranger abductions you hear about in the news; about half of those children are returned to their parents.
These stats offer much-needed perspective—but are also pretty forgettable after two minutes on social media. Remember that chilling YouTube "social experiment" where prankster Joey Salads demonstrates just how easily a stranger can lure little kids off a crowded playground with a puppy? "One share can save a child," the tagline read, and sure enough, the video racked up over 10 million views in six months. Is it any wonder we feel more compelled than ever not just to protect our kids, but to keep raising the bar?
Beginning with pregnancy, we get our first opportunities to monitor our children's every move: Each OB appointment brings a new ultrasound, prenatal screening, and the general unease of never being out of the woods until delivery day. Then, labor starts and we chart every contraction and fetal heartbeat with monitors.
Fast-forward to elementary school: Eighty-nine percent of us won't let our kids walk there without an adult, according to a Parents poll. The moms and dads who do—or who allow their kids to walk to a neighbor's house, or play at a nearby park, or do any of a number of things children used to do independently— risk getting ratted out by neighbors, picked up by the police, and skewered by millions on social media. You could argue that all the hypervigilance is exactly why kids are safer today—except crime against adults is also down.
But there I was a few weeks ago, squirming evasively when my 7-year-old daughter asked to ride her bike up our leafy block alone—on the sidewalk, helmet fastened. Sending her out when none of the other neighborhood kids are around feels reckless. Or, makes me look reckless.
In other words, this goes beyond last year's hilariously viral "Copter Mommy" video ("every day we're hoverin' "), with its caricatures of helicopter parents wielding bottles of hand sanitizer and kid-protecting bubble wrap. The real picture is more nuanced: Worry is inescapable when you have kids.
"Parents always work from a place of love and from a fervent desire to make their child's future better," says Parents advisor and psychologist Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of Homesick and Happy. The problem, he adds, is that good old-fashioned worry has become a troubling feedback loop where the more we fear, the more we protect. And the more we're around to protect, the more we think we have to fear.
So we make playdates. We keep kids inside when we can't sit out and watch. We hold hands way past the time little feet are capable of crossing a creek's stepping-stones alone. But what's really at stake, experts say, are intangibles long associated with childhood: risk-taking, budding self-confidence, adventure, and a healthy dose of magic. "While there are many things we can give our kids by spending time with them, the one thing we can't hand them is independence," Dr. Thompson says. "For kids to have full psychological ownership of their achievements, they have to be away from their parents. So, the task for us is to step back, open the door, and let a child go."
Back in the '70s, Roger Hart, Ph.D., director of the Children's Environments Research Group at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, went to a rural New England town to observe kids under age 12 playing and to map out all the far-flung places they roamed—such as the woods and the lake—without any adult supervision at all.
As I watch his grainy 16mm footage, I'm not sure what to make of a clip showing 5- to 12-year-olds building a treehouse, hoisting huge planks above their head, with the sounds of hammers and saws (saws!) in the background. I wonder where their parents are. I worry about amputated limbs, concussions, hammered fingers, and all the other possible mishaps. But I keep coming back to their faces, which are so singularly absorbed in—and unafraid of—their daunting task in a way I've never seen in my own kids.
Dr. Hart returned to the village 35 years later to check in with the treehouse builders who'd grown up and stuck around the same town to raise their children. The maps he drew of the next generation's adult-free world had scaled way back, leaving their parents simultaneously baffled, disappointed, and defensive. "They were concerned about their children's loss of freedom," Dr. Hart recalls. Despite crime rates that hadn't budged in decades, "they'd mention things like kidnapping and the increasing numbers of weirdos we all hear about. Then, half of them would immediately correct themselves and add, 'That's probably because of the media.' "
Media scare tactics aren't new: Tabloid newspapers were frightening us as far back as the 1800s, notes Paula Fass, Ph.D., history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the forthcoming book The End of American Childhood. A tipping point, she says, came in 1979, when 6-year-old Etan Patz vanished during his first solo walk from his New York City apartment to the school-bus stop two blocks away. The search turned from weeks into months (and eventually decades), as Etan's face appeared on posters, milk cartons, and Times Square billboards.
The media coverage "was like a match to gasoline," says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children. News was expanding to cable and allowed seemingly infinite time to run the Patz case. Similar coverage followed two years later for the abduction and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, of Hollywood, Florida, which inspired a widely watched TV movie and his father John Walsh's televised crusade for missing children (Walsh later became famous as the host of America's Most Wanted).
Although such cases are very rare, that's not the picture we get from the news. "The media bombard parents with messages that the world is unsafe," says Dr. Thompson. When TV isn't terrifying us, there are 3 a.m. Amber Alerts on our phone, Facebook posts about a friend's sister's neighbor's kid's trip to the E.R. after tumbling off a wooden playset, and viral videos showing how easy it is for a man with a puppy to scoop your child off a playground. The epidemic of gun violence in America compounds our fears and adds to our overall sense that control has slipped from our grasp.
Is it any surprise that the front yards, cul-de-sacs, even many of the parks that were teeming with kids a generation ago feel eerily quiet today? No bikes circling in the street. Few neighborhood parents gabbing on a front porch, keeping half an eye on the block. Our kids are spending more time inside, for sure. They're in front of more screens, looking to us for entertainment—or getting shuttled miles off their block for adult-choreographed playdates.
Which makes the one kid who's out there alone look especially vulnerable. Emily Hallenbeck, 31, a teacher and mother of a toddler in Bloomfield, New Jersey, cares for a first-grader who prides himself on walking the half-block back to his house solo at the end of the day. "I text his mom when he leaves and she texts me back when he arrives home," Hallenbeck says. "So far, he's been followed several times by our concerned neighbors in cars, and last week someone told him they might call the police because he was alone. He became scared that he was in trouble and started to cry."
Childhood isn't supposed to be like this. The moms and dads Dr. Hart interviewed know that—so do all the friends who talk wistfully about adult-free excursions into nearby woods or who posted the excerpt from a 1979 first-grade readiness checklist that recently made the rounds on Facebook: "Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend's home?" Indeed, we used to see kids doing stuff like this on their own all the time, says Dr. Thompson. "They were going out with other kids, coming back crying, getting their act together," he says. "It's good for parents to see children's resilience in action, and we're not seeing it anymore."
Contagious anxious parenting. This is Dr. Thompson's term for what's going on now. Our collective fear has gone viral, infecting not just moms and dads, but profoundly, our children. "When we act as if our kids' safety is always in question, at some point they can begin to believe it themselves, and that they are unsafe without us," says Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Stanford University dean of freshmen and author of How to Raise an Adult.
On a practical level, the guardrails we're installing at every turn aren't helping and may do more harm than good. "They prevent kids from having the experiences and building the skills they'll need in order to fend for themselves," says Lythcott-Haims. (She points out that parents of kids with special needs tend to be more invested in helping their children learn the life skills and achieve an independence that "typically" developing children used to acquire naturally.) Lythcott-Haims knows teenagers who can't navigate public transportation, operate a stove, or even cut with a knife alone. And while she sees this most dramatically in families who have time to sweat the small stuff—and the money to buy kid-tracking watches and remote-controlled bike brakes—the effect is everywhere.
Grit, confidence, knife skills: It's hard for a child to develop any of these with a nervous parent nearby. But what no one's talking about, adds Dr. Hart, is the loss of "child culture." He explains: "Children having a world that they've invented, places they go that adults don't know about. Parents say their kids don't seem to know how to invent their own play activities anymore."
Would I let my 7-year-old play in a desolate creek ravine with her friends? Excuse me for a minute, while I ruminate over radioactive runoff, stories of kids who've died in drainpipes, and the registered sex offenders whose addresses I've committed to memory. I think: "Maybe if she brings a phone." And then: "What about the effects of wireless technology on her brain?" (I can promise you none of these thoughts crossed my parents' minds.)
But normal as it is for me to worry, according to Dr. Hart it's also incredibly healthy for kids to use playthings and materials in ways that may seem dangerous to parents. I recall the footage of those intrepid New England treehouse builders— older kids helping younger ones, not a trace of fear on their faces. It's hard to know how their parents felt, because they're nowhere in the frame.
Maybe that's the key: getting out of the frame. A number of community movements have sprung up to restore some of the freedoms kids a generation or two ago took for granted. The Pittsburgh Foundation's initiative Positive Spin Youth Cycling teaches public-schoolers how to ride a bicycle and introduces them to the city's bike trails. Dr. Hart hopes that the adventure playgrounds popular in Europe (picture the junkyard of your childhood dreams) may gain a foothold here; his friends are building one in Brooklyn.
But we'd need a time machine to go back to the days before we believed that we could mitigate all risk, if only we stay close enough. Dr. Thompson gets that. He'd love for us all to send our kids into the woods with their friends and watch them come back happy. But he'd be just as thrilled if we only send them to summer camp. He also wishes that parents who live reasonably close to their children's school—and who have the benefit of crossing guards—would let their kids walk or bike there, especially if older classmates were around to join them. Each carries a much smaller statistical risk than riding in a car, yet only 13 percent of children walk or bike to school now, compared with 50 percent in 1969.
Arguably the biggest challenge we face as parents now is tuning out the chorus of fearmongers. "I feel like the issue for me isn't getting over worries of predators, but getting over judgment," says Hallenbeck, who bravely lets her 1-year-old son play with sticks and suck his thumb minutes after he's been digging in the dirt—much to the horror of playground onlookers. "Just the other day, James fell down and scraped his knee. Some people rushed over immediately to help, but I kind of hung back. I watched him touch his scrape, get up, and start walking again."