New Trend? Let Your Kids Play Alone, Get Arrested

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Image by Flickr user, psiaki, used under CC licensing.
Image by Flickr user, psiaki, used under CC licensing.

We’ve talked about “the world’s worst mom,” Lenore Skenazy, on GeekDad before. She’s the mother who came under fire for allowing her son to ride the subway, by himself, in New York City. She fought back, pioneering the idea of free range kids. She published a book and has a new show that just came out this past week on the Discovery Life channel. But where Skenazy triumphed against those who called her a bad mom, others have been vanquished. More and more we hear about parents who give their children a little freedom, only to be reprimanded by the police or state agencies.

Consider a Mississippi mother who allowed her son to walk home from soccer practice, only to have police respond to several 911 calls about a child walking alone.  Or in England, a dad who let his daughter walk the final 45 yards to a school bus stop, only to be threatened with the possibility of protective services. Recently, a South Carolina mom was arrested for letting her daughter play alone at the park and a Florida mom was charged with felony neglect for letting her son go to the park alone.

But the story that really caught my attention happened just outside Washington, DC, in Silver Spring, Maryland. A couple allowed their 10- and 6-year-old kids to walk home from the playground together. Concerned neighbors called the police and the kids were picked up and brought home in a police cruiser. The police demanded the dad retrieve his ID from upstairs and was told “shots would be fired” if he brought back anything but his ID, then went on to give a lecture about the dangers of the world. Next, Child Protective Services shows up with an emergency safety plan for his kids, that he was forced to agree to and sign or face worse circumstances, as CPS threatened to take his kids away. A couple days later a CPS social worker showed up at the kids’ school and interviewed them without notifying the parents and then showed up unannounced at their house. At this point, the parents are waiting to find out if they will be charged with parental neglect–or worse.

All for allowing an activity meant to give independence and build confidence, not hurt, endanger, or create a lifetime of fear.

Certainly, all of these cases are rooted in genuine (if not misplaced) concern for children’s well-being, but at what point did we stray so far from common sense? The story about the mother who watches her son walk to school, turn the corner, and is never seen again is a real one and, for a small number of families, a mortifying and life-changing event. But why do so many people feel this will happen to them? Internet posts and the 24-hour news cycle have created the illusion that pedophiles and kidnappers lurk just around every corner.

It’s natural to be a little nervous as a parent. You want to protect your child, so you drop them off at the school house doors, walk them in, and repeat the process in reverse in the afternoon. At home, they can play outside — but only in a fenced-in backyard and only when a parent is supervising! Is all of this realistic? No. The reality is that there is not a pervert who has been hiding just outside your fence, waiting for hours on the off chance you look away for 30 seconds so he can come in and snatch your kids. Is it possible? Yeah, I guess so. But is it probable? Absolutely not.

The free range kid movement says no to possibility and yes to probability. Just as it is important to stand up for free range kids and their parents, it’s equally important to say no when the police and social workers respond with such zeal. Allowing parents to be bullied for letting kids run around unsupervised (an activity that might have caused most of our parents to end up in jail when we were kids, running around without restriction) is unacceptable. Have things really changed that much?

Let’s take a moment to consider just a couple of statistics. The crime rate for serious crimes, the ones that really scare parents — kidnapping, rape, and murder, are at the lowest rate since 1963. That’s more than half a century ago. In fact, violent crime is half of what it was just 20 years ago. Yet, parents live in constant fear that something horrible is about to happen to their kids. It’s the boogeyman, writ very large.

In an age of Amber alerts and a constant culture of fear propaganda, helicopter parents cause us to imagine these stats are opposite. We’ve imagined and created dangers and fears where they simply don’t exist. Our kids suffer because of it. We should be parenting from a position of trust, not hard-wiring them for a life of fear.

That’s not to say that all kids in all areas should have free rein at all times. A large part of parenting is about recognizing risks and allowing your child’s participation based on your evaluations. Kids walking and playing alone shouldn’t be reason to call in the SWAT team. Relax. Trust your kids. Let them walk home alone.

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19 thoughts on “New Trend? Let Your Kids Play Alone, Get Arrested

    1. We need to fight for our freedom again. We should create a law stating, “Children can play out side for a period of time, without a parent getting arrested.” My kids are 12 and 8. Last year I got a warning from a police officer for them playing outside near my house.):

  1. Bravo, indeed! I quoted this on my blog. Just had my first child back in August and this stuff has been bothering me for years, but even more now that I have my own child.

  2. It isn’t kidnappers I fear but distracted drivers. When I walk around my neighborhood I see them on their phones. There are so many knocked over signs and mailboxes. I have tried to instill a healthy fear of vehicles and good street crossing habits in my kids but there is little margin for error in kid vs car.

    They have freedom in other ways but not for walking around this particular neighborhood.

  3. This is a tricky one, for sure. I feel like the officers and the callers should defer to the parent to a great degree here, but of course they should intervene when there’s a plausible risk… I’m not sure that I can see the line. It makes me wonder if we don’t have all of the facts: I can’t say I’d never call 911 about someone else’s kid if I were honestly concerned, but that’s the thing: is there something causing honest concern in these callers, or are they just being lame? Are the neighborhoods sketchier than we assume? Are the kids behaving in a way that’s easily perceived as unsafe? The Mississippi event mentions several 911 calls, so, probably not just one “busy-body” but a number of different individuals making the calls. Just a neighborhood-wide lack of common sense, or something else that we’re missing?

    1. There is an illogical overabundance of fear that prompts people to overreact. I’ve seen it firsthand and find it totally bewildering and frustrating. I think western society has coddled people to the point that they are no longer able to coherently assess danger. They think it is not that bad to text while driving “just for a second” or drink liters of soda per week but not safe to let a kid be alone for a few minutes or climb a tree without a safety net.

      And no, it’s not the plausibility of risk that should trigger intervention. It’s only high probability that calls for it. Many things are plausible and totally improbable. And even then, in all but the most extreme cases, if nothing went wrong but it was unquestionably a bad parental decision, the response should be no more than an instructive admonishment about the risk. Subjecting the family to legal threats is entirely inappropriate.

  4. Hate to say it, but these stories you link to here are what scare my wife and i into curtailing our kids freedoms. I want to give our 8-year-old more freedom, but i’m far more afraid of how people will react to that parental choice (and if the state, in one form or another, will involve themselves) than i am of criminals. So while this kind of article reinforces my belief that the world is not as dangerous for kids as it is made out to be, it doesn’t actually make me much more likely to give my kids freedom.

    We once had a cop stop and come up to our house because he saw our toddler in our fenced front yard trying (and not succeeding) to open the door and let himself in. I once had a lady yell at me “Are you crazy?” because my young kids were riding their bikes in the street in front of my house while i was there gardening at the curb. Yes, while. i. was. there.

    As far as i can tell, there are far too many way-to-good-for-anyone’s-good samaritans out there protecting my kids from my their “crazy” dad. In this country (and ones like it) it seems even a few totally overblown calls to child services could be a massive headache for us and even lead the state to kidnap us or our children or at least blackmail us with that threat. That is what i’m afraid of. That is what i think about when my daughter asks to ride her bike around without my supervision. That’s why i don’t let her go pick up a library hold even when the library is 300 yards down the street from our house.

    I’m not afraid of criminals. I’m afraid of fear-mongering busybodies and arrogant jerks with badges and/or state authority.

    1. It’s a bizarre situation to be in: that your family could be massively disrupted, not by a criminal act, but by the interference of people who genuinely believe they are ‘protecting’ your children.

    2. Yes; this mimics my thoughts exactly. There is a huge push to massively overprotect our children these days. And, even worse, because SOME kids are not ready to do things like walk to school themselves, people start requiring NO kids to do this. This does not help our children; indeed it puts them in danger through not knowing how to deal with the world.

      School was canceled for 3 days in a row a few weeks ago. Why? Because the absolute temperature was about 5degF, and the windchill was about -15F. The roads were clear; the sidewalks too. I feel sorry for those who can barely make ends meet; those whose kids are warmer and get better food at school. Those whose parents can’t afford to take time off.

      I walked 5 blocks to school when I was young; starting at 6 years old (First grade). I walked HOME for lunch. So did 90% of the kids I grew up with 30 years ago in Suburbia. These days, god forbid you lose sight of a child.

      My #1 role of parenting is: Teach them how to fail; repeatedly and safely. Encourage the mistakes, and to figure out how to learn from them.

    3. I agree completely. The biggest fear is no longer the child abductors etc… but the authorities. It’s sad because it really takes away from a child’s outside playtime. And they wonder why children are overweight and don’t do enough physical activities…

  5. When K attended the public elementary school a few years ago, she walked to school in the morning for a little bit of 3rd grade and almost all of 4th. It’s a little less than a mile. She’d go about one block on a less busy side street before city sidewalks picked up. Her route took her past a fire station and small park. Despite instructions that she was a morning walker, school bus drivers continued to try and pick her up along the way. The school office received NUMEROUS calls from concerned people about some kid WALKING, especially if the temperature dropped below 40 or there was any kind of snow or rain. Which then had us getting calls. We finally had to go into the office in person (after a couple of calls) to report the driver AGAIN and ask if THEY had any insight on what to do about the callers. Since they didn’t, we suggested they inform the callers that both school and parents are aware she’s walking, that this is also the CHILD’S preferred method of getting to school, that she is always properly attired with coat, snow boots, rain jacket, etc, and yes she has a ride if the weather is unduly inclement.

    No, snow flurries and temps in the 30’s are not unduly inclement in northern Indiana.

    The wait for her bus with it’s variably timed arrivals at a corner made somewhat dangerous by a busier street back behind us and that homeowner’s rock landscaping was usually longer than the time it took her to walk, especially in winter. Walking gave her some physical activity before she needed to sit still and focus. Her attentiveness in school QUICKLY improved. She was a morning walker, afternoon bus rider because she knew that she couldn’t mess around or do anything causing too much delay because it would make her tardy, thus getting her into trouble at school. Also, the school tended to call pretty soon into the day if a student was reported absent. Walking HOME, however, only had consequences at home if she was late.

    Even with all of that and K’s enthusiastic declarations that she preferred it (and sighs for the occasion that she had to ride in) some people, including some family members, just couldn’t wrap their brains around it.

  6. When I was 4 years old (1979) I was nearly kidnapped in South Hampton, New York. From what I have been told, my Father intervened and called the cops. Even after that my parents would let me and my brother do tons of things by ourselves. We used to live on the side of a mountain and we spend 5-10 hours climbing and traversing trails by ourselves. We hurt ourselves plenty, broke some bones, got lots of stitches and we were perfectly fine. When my parents divorced, we became latchkey kids and had no-one to rely on other than each other and our own ingenuity at times. I learned how to cook real fast. This new trend just makes kids less self reliant and feel that they cannot take care of themselves and I am afraid of how this will shape them as they grow into adults.

  7. Take a look at this post from Free Range Kids…

    I think it highlights quite nicely what over-protected kids are losing out on: the ability to independently deal with challenging situations.

    “I hear you say these kids are too young to be trusted with independence and responsibilities until they are old enough to be treated with suspicion and fear. I say they need independence and responsibilities when they are young so they won’t become the sort of teens you fear.”

  8. I think it all boils down to people’s comfort level, and there will always be parents spread across that spectrum, from “free range” to short-leash, practicing their parenting skills at a variety of points in a child’s development. There really is no right way to do it . . . just theories about what may or may not work for this or that child . . . which is why we’re all so different to begin with. Different ways we were raised, different sets of values, different life experiences that have made us who we are.

    Personally, I tend to err on the side of caution, and usually didn’t feel comfortable running the risk (however statistically remote it might be) of “something” happening, by letting my pre-teen kids wander around by themselves. Some theoretical benefits in terms of independence, sense of self and self-reliance, or reduced fear of the world that they might have derived at 10 or 12 years old would have been small comfort to me if they were accidentally hit along the street or victimized in some way by a creep. Yes, my older sister and I walked ourselves to elementary school in the 70’s, and it was probably about 3/4 of a mile, along a relatively busy street, but that doesn’t automatically translate into me feeling comfortable with my own kids doing it once I became a parent.

    The arguments for both sides will continue, and will re-surface every time something happens to another family, but you can’t completely legislate good parenting. Within certain limits, we’re all pretty much on our own.

  9. Used to be that neighbors knew each other and actually kept an eye on not only their children, but on all the children on the block. If we scraped a knee or started a fight, the nearest neighbor was on the scene to help.No parent resented that other parents were parenting not only their children, but all the children they associated with. And we respected those adults in the same way we respected our parents. If all those busy-bodies had taken some time to know their neighbors and look out for them, police and social services could have been left out of the equation.

  10. We should fight to create a law stating, “Children can play out side for a period of time, without a parent getting arrested.” My kids are 12 and 8 and I’m afraid. Last year I got a warning from a police officer for them playing outside near my house.):

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