What would happen if we gave our kids the chance to spread their wings more instead of always being watched?
Has childhood truly changed all that much in the past hundred years? I found proof that it has in a 1937 children’s book, On the Banks of Plum Creek. When I read it to my kids recently, an unremarkable scene hit me like a ton of bricks.
The main character in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls, is 7 years-old—the same age as my son. She and her sister have an old-fashioned childhood: They are allowed to roam freely around the meadows and forests near their home.
But one day, when Laura breaks a rule, her parents punish her in an unusual way: Instead of exploring on her own, she must spend the entire day at home, being watched by her mother.
Laura finds that “being watched” is the worst punishment she can think of. She concludes after that day, “She was sure that being good could never be as hard as being watched.”
Yet “being watched” is the only state that most modern children have ever known. For my kids, at least, there’s no solitary wilderness exploration to be found in our densely packed suburb. There’s never any time away from the watchful eyes and ears of adults.
No chance for independence
I thought about this scenerecently when my son asked if he could walk to our library by himself. The local library is just four blocks from our home; several friendly neighbors live along the route, and the librarians know our family well. Ma Ingalls, or any parent a hundred years ago, would not think twice about letting a second grader walk that short, safe, and familiar route alone.
But things have changed. I would never let my son walk there without me—not because I fear for his safety, but because of my haunting fear that someone will call the police.
These days, a child going out without an adult is seen as a cause for consternation and panic. Passing do-gooders think of parents as irresponsible and negligent if they let children walk somewhere alone.
But is such a response overblown? The truth is that there’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America: “It’s a safer world today than when modern parents were kids.”
Even though today’s world is safer than it’s ever been, most adults act as though it’s far less safe. In just the past few decades, there’s been a drastic decline in the time children spend playing freely outside with other children. Unlike when we grew up, it’s incredibly rare to see groups of children playing outside apart from a structured, adult-led activity.
Television viewing and computer games have replaced free play, and this change carries serious consequences. There’s reason to believe that the decline in unsupervised free play hurts children’s psychological and emotional health:
Over the past half century, in the United States and other developed nations, children’s free play with other children has declined sharply. Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults. This article documents these historical changes and contends that the decline in play has contributed to the rise in the psychopathology of young people.
So if unstructured free play outdoors is so good for them, why don’t we give our children the gift of unsupervised play? Why must they spend every minute of every day “being watched”?
The answer is complicated. We no longer live in a world of stickball in the alley and “come home when the streetlights go on.” If we send our kids out to play, they’re probably the only children on the block playing outside. And even if the world is safer than it’s ever been, it’s not without risk, and that risk may be higher depending on where you live.
Yet it seems like, in many places, the risks may be worth it. A dearth of opportunities to assert independence and agency hamstrings our children. They need these opportunities to take initiative and make decisions for themselves before they leave the nest.
So what can we do?
How do we encourage independence in our modern culture?
It turns out that many parents would like to give their children more opportunities to be “free range,” but like me, they’re held back by worry that strangers will report them to the police. So one of the simplest, most sensible measures we can do to fight for our kids’ right to play would be to follow the lead of Utah and implement Free Range Parenting Legislation:
“I hear from so many parents who say, ‘I’d love to let my kid walk to the park, but I’m afraid. Not of predators! Of someone calling 911 because they think my child is neglected.’ A Free-Range Parenting law removes that fear. It means that parents who, by choice or necessity, give their kids some unsupervised time [to play and explore] know that this will not be mistaken for negligence.”
There’s even a legislative toolkit available if you want to bring Free Range Parenting legislation to your state.
This kind of legislation would allow for a more old-fashioned childhood, with outside playtime replacing screen time. And that upbringing could in turn support a more vibrant, intelligent, and successful future for our democracy:
… To prepare the members of the next generation for post-Babel democracy, perhaps the most important thing we can do is let them out to play. Stop starving children of the experiences they most need to become good citizens: free play in mixed-age groups of children with minimal adult supervision. Every state should follow the lead of Utah, Oklahoma, and Texas and pass a version of the Free-Range Parenting Law that helps assure parents that they will not be investigated for neglect if their 8- or 9-year-old children are spotted playing in a park. With such laws in place, schools, educators, and public-health authorities should then encourage parents to let their kids walk to school and play in groups outside, just as more kids used to do.
I suspect this legislation could help parents raise confident, competent kids. And all of us will be better for it when these capable kids grow up and take on the world.