When I was a kid, summer was a magical time of freedom. I'd lurch out of the house rubbing my eyes with the birdsong at dawn and not return until dinner, filthy and tired and delirious with possibilities fulfilled. My parents would have a basic idea where I was — going to Eric's or Brian's (to start, at least) or to the movies — but they would not know with a GPS-anklet level of specificity. I walked through wild chaparral canyons and hills to friends' houses, rode my bike to the little one-screen movie house and ice cream shop miles away in Montrose, and roamed the horse trails of Flintridge, dodging piles of horse crap and playing militaristic versions of Calvinball with hooting friends. Physical activity that made me whine during the school year (like walking uphill a mile and a half to get home, alone, from first grade on) suddenly was all part of the fun. I might occasionally check in with mom by phone, as a courtesy, but in the days before message machines or call-waiting or cell phones, who could blame me if there were great, sprawling blocks of time when I was untraceable?
Now, of course, I'm a parent of young kids, living just a couple of miles from where I grew up. Would I let them roam the hills I grew up in unsupervised? Would I let them flit from one friend's house to the next, unscheduled, driven by whim and by whose Atari was working that week? Would I let them ride their bikes a mile to the boulevard for a candy bar? Hell no. Because I have caved fully and completely to the relentless message of the media, the government, and the people-who-know-such-things: my children are on constant peril.
I'm dwelling on this sad fact this week because of this maddening story over at Free Range Kids, the excellent site I first mentioned three years ago. Blogger Lenore Skenazy describes how a mother was admonished by police that letting her kids play in the neighborhood the way I used to play — indeed, the way kids have played since before anyone could remember — is illegal:
Dear Free-Range Kids: Our kids have always been “Free -Range.” Unfortunately, today, someone called the police because of the “unsupervised children” running around the neighborhood. My son is six (seven in September), and we allow him to ride his bike to friend’s houses up the street (we live in a small, three-street neighborhood far from any major roads), rollerblade down the road, play with friends in the little patch of woods across the street from our houses, play in sprinklers with the neighbors, etc. There are constantly kids running around our neighborhood, playing with their friends — kids of all ages.
The officer said that kids under ten, by law, are not allowed outside, unsupervised except in their parents’ yard. The officer did not come to our house, but visited the mom of two of my son’s good friends. The people who called reported that all the way back in the winter, a “whole bunch of unsupervised kids were sled riding down the hill” that is across from our townhouse units.
This cop might be all wet about the laws of his state or locality. But the sentiment he expresses — which would have been reviled and regarded as un-American fifty or even thirty years ago — is now mainstream. The media pummels us with stories about children in peril. Politicians snatch low-hanging fruit by demanding more and more and more laws protecting children. Schools and other institutions, rocked by frivolous lawsuits and by the collapse of personal responsibility, ban anything that might lead our little special snowflakes to skin their knees. And so we fear — and we deny our kids the sort of freedoms that we enjoyed.
Our fears are largely spectral — or, at least, vastly exaggerated. We're led to believe that every shrub hides a lurking child molester. Yet all reliable statistics indicate that such crimes against children have steadily declined (not to mention the fact that children have always been at greatest risk for abuse at home, not running around in the wild). Morons driving badly are still a danger, but not more to kids than to adults, and not more now (when they are distracted by texting) than they were back in the day (when they were distract by jamming the 8-Track into the player). Our parents weren't careless, nor were they made of more fearless stuff — they simply weren't bombarded with the daily message of danger, danger, danger. If the Leave It To Beaver/Norman Rockwell vision of America glossed over many ugly truths, at least it did not send the insidious message that little Cindy and Bobby would be kidnapped if they rode to the park and decapitated if they used an off-brand pool toy.
Why should you care? Well, you should care because the danger danger danger drumbeat and our capitulation to it is part of the process of making us more dependent upon the government, more subservient to authority, more willing to let the state use kids as an excuse to tell us what do to in an increasingly wide and unprincipled array of circumstances. Accepting that kids' lives must be heavily structured normalizes the idea that all of our lives must be structures. And it's self-sustaining. We crank and rant about youth being the slackoisie, but can you really blame them? Kids raised in the whiffle life are taught dependence and fear, not self-reliance and self-assurance. Do you think those kids are going to grow up and vote for more personal freedom and liberty when you're an old crank? Or are they going to look to the Nanny State, lovingly embodied by their own dear parents, to tell everyone what to do, just as it has always told them? Can you expect them to respect your desire to wander where and how you please, when they've always been taught they mustn't do that because it's dangerous? Sure. Good luck with that.
Now excuse me — my kid has a scheduled playdate.
Edit: Forgot to note that the Free Range Kids story was courtesy of Walter Olson.