On the Saturday before Mother’s Day, Lenore Skenazy (author of Free Range Kids and a long-time friend of 168 Hours) penned a funny op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on hovering parents. She mocked the modern parental obsession with staying within 2 feet of one’s children (“a hug’s length away” to use Gymboree parlance). Once upon a time, children could ride their bikes all over the neighborhood until the street lights came on. Leaving a school-aged child in the children’s section of the library while you returned a book nearby would not be seen as horrible parenting. The culture of parenting has definitely changed, which is one reason that mothers (and fathers) spend more time with their kids now than they did in 1965. Even as mothers work far longer hours for pay than they did in those days. There are upsides and downsides to this, of course, but Skenazy likes to make fun of extreme examples, so this particular op-ed even took on a back-pack in which you can carry 7-year-olds who can walk but don’t want to. Sherpa parents!
Evaluating risk is one of those concepts that the human brain is funny about. We have a tendency to be very scared of extremely rare but horrific events, whereas every day dangers seem more tolerable. So we think little of putting our kids in the car (which kill 1 out of every 10,000 people who ride in them per year) but wouldn’t dream of leaving kids at a playground by themselves, though only a handful of children are abducted by strangers each year.
Of course, in today’s letters section, the Wall Street Journal runs a letter from one kidnapping victim, and another letter from someone who seems like she lived near one. They mentioned that all it took is the parents looking away for 5 minutes. 5 minutes! I guess this is the “rare exception” line of reasoning, in which any anecdote which counters a broad based trend or statistic must be evidence that the data are wrong or should be ignored. But while Kathleen Newton of Lindon, Utah writes that “there are too many vicious people out there who seek to do children harm” and this is “why unsupervised play does not exist anymore,” this ignores the reality that the world has changed, but not in the way she’s pointing. Crime rates are lower now than they were a few decades ago. And regardless, in a world of 7 billion people, you can find anecdotes of anything. The fact that an animal could escape from a zoo exhibit doesn’t mean that bringing your kids to the zoo indicates lax parenting.
Parenting always features tough calls of what children can be trusted to do by themselves, and what we have to help with. As Jasper just turned four, we’re trying to work more on self-sufficiency: putting on one’s own clothes (even if the shoes wind up on the wrong feet), going to the potty by oneself, and so forth. I’m hoping to give him opportunities to go a bit free range as he grows up, but it’s interesting to see the reactions people have to the concept.