The parenting police state: Will we ever be able to go back to freer childhoods?

Children aren't allowed to roam like they once did — and parents who buck the trend are paying a price

Kids, 1965
(Image credit: (Bettmann/CORBIS))

Let's start by acknowledging that there are some nice aspects of modern-day parenting culture in America.

For example, it's easy to roll our eyes at "helicopter" parents hovering over their children well into college, but this extended parenthood brings with it a new kind of closeness in the parent-child relationship. Having to strap kids in a progression of special car seats through age 8 (or older) is annoying and promotes the purchase of larger vehicles, but child deaths from auto accidents have been steadily declining since the mid-1990s, a trend the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes to car seats, booster seats, and seat belts.

Still, this summer has highlighted the darker side to America's evolving parenting standards. The news has been littered with stories of moms and dads being arrested or sent to court for such milquetoast offenses as leaving a 4-year-old child in a car during a short errand, letting a 9-year-old play in the park by herself while the mom was at work nearby, and even letting a 7-year-old walk to the park by himself.

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Now, it's certainly possible that this rash of parents being harassed by the law for minor "infractions" isn't a real trend at all, just something our media culture is amplifying into a national phenomenon — like shark attacks and the "knockout game." But parents don't seem to be taking it that way. In private conversations and public blog posts, mothers and fathers of young children are discussing the arrests and court dates as if they're common, because they feel themselves being judged for their own decisions.

This isn't a pleasant feeling, on the playground or in the courtroom, and it's conceivable there will be a backlash against the busybodies who call the cops before talking to the parent. On the flip side, we could be headed toward a dystopian nanny state.

But there's also the possibility that today's parents could try to turn back the clock to a time when children roamed freely through neighborhoods and parks, developed a sense of autonomy at an early age, and got hurt sometimes in the process.

Can we go back to laissez faire, free-ranging childhood?

Last week, Slate published results of a poll of about 6,000 parents, asking them what they were allowed to do as children and what they allow their own kids to do. The responses seem to confirm what we all know: Children are on a shorter leash today.

Slate's line of demarcation is the early 1980s, when, fed by sensational media stories, "panic about the dangers of childhood began to take hold," as Jessica Grose and Hannah Rosin write. They focused on parents "who were born in the '70s — the last generation before the Reagan-era panic began." Those parents were torn between nostalgia and caution, Grose and Rosin summarize, but "overall, there is a sense among respondents who grew up in the '50s, '60s, and '70s that they were the last era of children to roam free."

There's a strong developmental case to be made for a return to free-range childhood. Letting children navigate the world outside their door (but not too far) on their own and with friends can foster a sprit of independence, teach social skills, promote an appreciation of nature, encourage creativity, and allow a healthy space to learn how to fail.

One of the most prominent parents making that case is Lenore Skenazy, who turned her controversial decision to let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway by himself into a Free-Range Kids book and now a website that documents cases of what she deems harassment of parents.

Skenazy helped publicize the arrest of Debra Harrell, the mother who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a nearby park while she worked at McDonald's. She writes at Reason:

Just because something happened on Law & Order doesn't mean it's happening all the time in real life.... These fears pop into our brains so easily, they seem almost real. But they're not. Our crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon.... It may feel like kids are in constant danger, but they are as safe (if not safer) than we were when our parents let us enjoy the summer outside, on our own, without fear of being arrested. [Reason]

Notice the unmistakable hint of nostalgia? If it's not explicit enough, in June a writer and humorist named Melissa L. Fenton published a manifesto of sorts at Scary Mommy (you may have seen it in your Facebook feed).

In her article, "10 Ways to Give Your Kid a 1970s Kind of Summer," Fenton rebels against the strictures of modern parenting. She vows to "tear open a tiny envelope of cherry Kool-Aid, sprinkle it into a BPA-laden plastic pitcher, dump four cups of regular, granulated, white, and maybe even generic sugar (not raw, stevia, or agave), then add water from the tap." It is a paean to the freedom of unfettered youth:

You know what I want my kids to experience this summer? The same type of summer I would have experienced in the late 1970's. The exact same one. I survived it, and they will too. As a matter of fact, it must have been pretty memorable, because 30 years later I can tell you exactly what it entailed. It entailed FUN. [Scary Mommy]

Remember what that was like? America, we're not doing parenting right, for kids or their moms and dads. We can't turn back the clock, exactly — American society is much more risk-averse, and litigious, than it was 40 years ago. But we can learn how to have fun again.

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