New Trend? Let Your Kids Play Alone, Get Arrested

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.

I work. I play games. Sometimes I work at playing games.