Why can't we give our own children the freedom that we had growing up?
"Me and Katie rode on our bikes to Oak Park. We swung on the swings then walked over to the jungle gym. And I saw a snake!" —me, age 9
"I went on a bike ride all through Swathmore...I went to Spring Field Park!" — my friend, age 6 1/2
"I went to Kerry's on my bike by myself!" — me, also age 9
These are entries from my and my friend's childhood diaries. Like many kids growing up in the 1980s, we were allowed to ride our bikes unsupervised for hours at a time. She lived on the East Coast, I grew up in the Midwest. But the national parenting MO of the time was, "Let kids be kids." Let them find their own adventures and deal with the challenges that come with them. In my case, Kerry's house was a mile from my own house. The playground at Oak Park was a mile away as well. There were no sidewalks, and to get to both places I had to cross several streets, some of them quite busy as they connected different neighborhoods to each other. There certainly were no parents at that park. Just kids. Kids riding bikes, playing on swings, poking at snakes with sticks. Alone. Not an adult anywhere in sight.
I can't imagine these scenes happening today. Can you?
If you are a frequent reader of this blog or of Parents magazine you know that we've been talking about the issue of children's freedom a lot lately. In the March issue we ran a huge feature about how our culture has trained parents to keep kids close despite our instinct to give them more freedom. And in April we showcased the horrifying results when you do give them more independence: Some busybody calls the police undermining your judgment.
Then this weekend it happened to my friend, the one whose diary entry talks about riding her bike all over town as a kid. She let her 7-year-old daughter walk four blocks—crossing exactly one street—to the neighborhood grocery store. Fifteen minutes later, two police officers were at her doorstep with her terrified daughter. They had followed her home because they'd received an anonymous call that a child was walking alone. Why was her daughter terrified? Not from her little jaunt to the store. In fact, that was exhilarating! She was proud of herself for asking the store clerk where the Easter egg dye was and for paying for it with her own money. What terrified her was the cops trailing her in their car. She thought she was in trouble!
Luckily the cops were understanding and didn't take the issue any further (although they did fill out a report). But still! When did a child walking alone in a safe, family-centric neighborhood become a reportable offense? (I won't even get into how low this town ranks on the national crime index. Besides, does it matter?)
But even worse I think about my friend's daughter, and my own children, and how they will remember their childhoods one day. Will their diaries be filled with adventures like ours? Of exploring their towns? Riding their bikes for miles? Playing in parks with other kids and creating their own fun without the hovering presence of an adult? I fear that the rate we're going they will not. How sad is that?
Do you have a diary or journal entry of your own childhood adventure to share? Post it in our Facebook comments!
Chandra Turner is the executive editor of Parents.