In our play we reveal what kind of people we are. Ovid
July 21, 2006 12:59 AM   Subscribe

In "today's insane world" should children ever be allowed to play outside, alone, unsupervised?

Does the average risk of kidnapping, sexual assualt, wreckless drivers (and other dangers) outweigh the benefits and delights of normal childhood freedoms?

In the good ol' 70's we played outside all day and went back home at dark or to eat. I loved it, it's a huge part of why I am who I am today. Was it really safer then than it is today?

Flash forward to today - Probably half the parents in my neighborhood won't let their 12yo walk alone next door to play, or be unsupervised in their own high fenced back yards. The other half let their 8yo's play outside with friends, ride bikes on the sidewalks and (I believe) either take a peek at them once in a while or have the kids check in periodically. The two camps are very strongly divided and generally judgemental - it rivals the wohm vs sahm wars.

Which way is right? Or is there a safe middle ground? How to weigh the risk versus the benefit? Some genuine statistics would be great.
posted by LadyBonita to Society & Culture (44 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Might be worthwhile reading.
posted by occhiblu at 1:05 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: Risk of kidnapping by a stranger: a national study (NISMART) estimated 115+/-55 children in the US were kidnapped by strangers in 1999. There were 80.5 million people 19 or younger in the US at the time. This leads to a probability of being abducted by a stranger of no more than 0.0002% in any given year, or a probability of being abducted at any point before 19 of no more than 0.0038%.

Risk of sexual assault by a stranger: Statistics on the total incidence of sexual assaults on children range widely from 0.12% to 0.46%. The only number I can find quickly on the number committed by strangers is that 7% of sexual assaults on children are committed by strangers. This leads to a probability of being sexually assaulted by a stranger of no more than 0.032%.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:45 AM on July 21, 2006

I think the "unsupervised in their own high fenched back yards" crowd is going to be up a sheltered child that has no real grasp on the world. that is a bit to extreme for me.
posted by crewshell at 1:46 AM on July 21, 2006

The second way is right. The risk of being kidnapped by a stranger is, as Xenophobe points out, miniscule. The parents who keep their children like prisoners are doing them great harm.
posted by Justinian at 1:50 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: We live in a golden age. There are, as there have always been, risks. However there has never been a better time thanks to medical technology, communications, and community attitudes. I don't believe that the incidence of sexual assault is any higher today than it used to be, the difference is that it is reported more often.

Also, news media plays up anything having to do with sexual assault / kidnapping / threats to children. Fifty or so years ago, a kidnapping on the other side of the country probably wouldn't have made your local news, now you are bombarded with it. A series of sexual assaults would probably never have come to light, let alone making national news.

Youth is often demonised by the media too.

As a kid I was given a lot of freedom by my parents. I did stupid stuff occasionally, got into a bit of trouble here and there, and survived it all. I wouldn't deny a kid that.
posted by tomble at 1:54 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: Short Answer: Yes.

Longer Answer: I think as long as the parents have instilled a decent chunk of 'don't talk to strangers' rules, and have taught the child to protect his/her 'boundaries'....along with strict rules re: time to be home, areas allowed to visit, and numbers memorized...All of these will promote learning to navigate on one's own, to protect one's self, slowly but surely, are essential tools.
posted by Radio7 at 2:27 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: Couple of years ago I read something that said that the crime statistics for crimes against children, at least in the UK, were dropping when you view them across 50 years. Can't find the data to back it up, but the theory was that while the risk to kids is dropping, the fear of parents is rising.

Not only do you have constant news broadcasts and newspaper coverage telling you about the dangers, fictional dramas focusing on crime, and politicians blaming each other for crime, you also have to contend with the fear of state intervention in your family if you do allow your kids to take any risks.

If anything goes wrong, if your kids have an accident & you have to take them to hospital, questions will be asked & social services will eventually get involved. I know of a good family with 4 kids, one of whom is a typical boy, climbs trees, builds forts etc - been to hospital twice in a year with broken or strained limbs cos he fell out a tree - the family got taken aside by the doctor and warned that one more visit to A&E would mean a visit from a social worker.

As a parent, I find this tough. My wife has been brought up in a fear-driven family, and our kids have to be watched, supervised, behind gates the whole time. There's no way that they can play in the street the way I did, or go down the field, the way I did. So yes, there is a great divide, and the middle ground is that I give them more freedom to be kids when she's not about. But if anything was to happen to them..... (back to the fear & blame game!)

(be aware that crime statistics have been interfered with dramatically over the last 25 years, at least in the UK, with crimes being reclassified as "serious" or "violent" and changes in how they are counted, which leads to the impression that crime has been rising when its actually been on a downward trend apparently)
posted by khites at 2:31 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Note that too much "NEVER TALK TO STRANGERS THEY WILL KILL YOU" reinforcement and you end up with a situation like we've seen a few times recently where kids seperated from their parents/guardians out in the woods will come close to death because they actively hide from their rescuers. Their rescuers being strangers, after all.
posted by Justinian at 2:41 AM on July 21, 2006

The reason we all live in fear is because the media perpetuates that fear. They do that to get eyeballs. Any bad thing that happens, no matter how unimportant, is played up big on TV, and made into a real and dire immediate threat to you and your children. Why? So that you stay glued to your screen through the commercials. It's all about fear and spectacle.

Life is not As Seen On TV.

In all the history of humanity, there never been a safer time to be a child than in the present-day United States.
posted by Malor at 2:42 AM on July 21, 2006

Parenting isn't about keeping your children away from anything anything potentially dangerous, it is about teaching what to when they DO encounter a new and potentially dangerous situation.

You won't be able to protect your poor little babies forever, so give them the tools, advice, awareness and self-confidence they need to handle difficult situations on their own.
posted by sophist at 3:22 AM on July 21, 2006

I'll let my child play like I did. Getting myself into trouble with my friends taught me quite a few life lessons.

"The world isn't more violent, it's just more televised" -- Marilyn Manson.
posted by jimdanger at 3:34 AM on July 21, 2006

In the Sixties we would play outside all day in the Summer in the nearby streets until my father stood and hollered for us to come home. And I walked to School from the age of six - about a mile or so. I have talked to a friend who is a parent about this and he says it isn't the fear of strangers, it's the fear of traffic that caused both of these freedoms to shrink. This is in the UK
posted by A189Nut at 3:51 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: Thanks for asking, LadyBonita, I'm very interested in this question, too. Summer vacation for children began today and I've been thinking the same thing. My family and I live right smack in the middle of Tokyo, where madly speeding taxi drivers could potentially kill my son (one of my son's friends actually got hit by one last fall and was hospitalized for a badly broken leg) and pedophiles abound (just in my imagination that often runs completely out of control re my kid). When I look back on my own childhood, I was like you and ran around all day and came home when I got hungry; my mom didn't seem to mind at all as long as I followed certain basic rules. But now, as a mother myself, I WORRY. I worry so much that I'm seriously considering buying my son a cell phone with GPS tracking device on it (they are apparently selling like hotcakes here, believe it or not, and will be appearing there, too), but my husband thinks I'm crazy and won't let me cross that line just yet. The thing is, I know I'm crazy and that my fear is caused by too much exposure to the media, but I can't seem to help feeling this way and it takes a lot of self control to act reasonably and let my son have his freedom. I'm sorry I'm not really answering your question, but I thought you might be interested in hearing how similar the situation is here in Japan.
posted by misozaki at 4:02 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to a parent's perspective on the issue, but from what I've learned in classwork on Criminology and the sociology of violence and murder, I think it it might be worthwhile to note, as alluded to above, the vast majority of violence against children isn't performed by strangers. As tomble says above, cases of stranger-on-child violence or kidnapping are horrifying and get a disproportionate amount of media coverage, but are by no means the rule.

Kidnapping, in the overwhelming number of cases, is by a non-custodial parent. And childhood sexual assault is almost always performed by a relative or other friend of the family.

I don't know if that has any bearing on how closely one should monitor their children: the risk of a stranger-on-child assault is terrifying, and though uncommon, is an actual risk. But safeguarding children from threats not outside the home and social circle might be more important.
posted by Eldritch at 4:07 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: Which way is right? Or is there a safe middle ground?

Let them have fun but give them advantages you didn't have. A special cell phone to call for help, for example, would be a cool addition to the knife, matches, and other stuff your kid takes alone into the woods.

However, the scary part (for parents, not for kids) is that meddling and litigious do-gooders can do a lot of harm to you as per khites' comment above. You are not allowed to make all the decisions about your kids these days -- others may step in and declare you an unfit parent if you aren't over-safe with your kids. Could a mother be charged with neglect or endangerment or something like that for letting her kids go alone into the woods? A few years ago, I'd have laughed at the idea, but now I wouldn't be surprised to read a story like that.

When I was a kid, friends coming to our house stood on nails, cut themselves, bruised themselves, and set themselves on fire. We were having lots o' fun. One even broke his neck in our pool (lived, recovered, fine today, just a stiff neck). Today, I'd be bankrupted and arrested for not stopping the fun before it started and not restricting kids to a supervised rubber room.

I still vote for giving kids freedom, but watch your back. As the person in charge, you will be blamed if the littlest thing goes wrong.
posted by pracowity at 4:14 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: I find a nice long browse through anxiety helps me get sane about these debates.
posted by Pericles at 4:49 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: Michele Elliott, the director of Kidscape, said: "What we're doing to our kids is telling them the world is a very horrible and scary place. We're creating a generation of children who are afraid of their own shadow. As a charity we have become more vocal in our message that it isn't such a terrible world out there."

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent and a specialist in "risk consciousness", said: "Parents are almost forced to fall in line. Most parents are getting bombarded with these kind of messages in all kinds of ways.

"In the past two or three years there has been an exponential rise in the pressure on parents with scare stories. The minority of parents who try to resist it are stigmatised as irresponsible. When your own kid is the only one allowed to go shopping, to go to the swimming pool by himself, it looks very strange."

From: Do we worry too much about the safety of our children?
Also interesting: Paranoid Parenting.
posted by davar at 4:53 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: My folks were pretty dang good at making sure that we understood that we would have to take the consequences for our actions and that predicting those consequences was an important step in making a decision.

When I look at my own daughter and recall the things that my parents "let" us do, I'mm absolutely astounded by the trust they had in us. We rarely abused that trust and ran with it to go on and do some pretty fabulous things.

Here's an example: would you let a 13 year old use a router unsupervised? After being taught how to use one safely, my oldest brother made a two-sided, hinged box for mounting/spreading/drying butterflies, built so that if he caught something interesting in the field, he could mount it on the spot and take it home on his bike unscathed. The payoff is the seeds of lifelong independence and creativity.

In the months up to and after my daughter was born, I became accutely aware of the obscene amount of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) that is used to market products to new parents. Gah. It carries along through the rest of childhood. I try to use the decision-making process my parents instilled in me with a few extra steps and questions. What are the possible consequences? Are the consequences being fed to me or am I seeing them myself? What is the underlying motivation of the consequences? If it's fear/guilt, is it a reasonable fear? How likely is it, really? Am I prepared to deal with the fallout, if it does come to pass?

My neighborhood had a number of kids in it and didn't have heavy traffic. The kids owned that neighborhood on summer nights and traveled in packs, playing kid games like freeze tag, red rover, and spud. We ran around catching fireflies to put into jars or to smear on our shirts to make glowing green patches. We tried actively to flip the Harty's swing set over by swinging on it. One neighbor offered a bounty to the kids for catching a groundhog that was ruining his lawn, and as far as I know, no parent said 'boo' because what chance would a kid have? We also knew intuitively which parents might be home during the day to get Band AidsTM. I am so grateful for how these experiences shaped me.

So to hell with your chicken-shit, isolationist neighbors. Forget the damn judgemental crapola. Help your kids make a lemonade stand, teach them to play 'statues', help them make their very own miniature golf course, make the best popcorn balls for Hallowe'en, or put on their own version of Sesame Street and the rest of the neighborhood kids will flock to you. Initially you will be that family, but for the kids you will eventually become that family (if you can figure out the intonational difference from the markup). Which is better for everyone in the long run?
posted by plinth at 5:06 AM on July 21, 2006 [19 favorites]

what plinth said.

My dad was career Naval Air Reserve, so we grew up on inland bases, running around government property surrounded by chain link fences and armed Marine guards. There was no trouble a kid could get into that involved strangers, but the bigger bases were full of 19 and 20 year old guys who could always suggest something...

We played outside from dawn through dusk on summer days, and only came home for drinks and toys we forgot. At least once a week, some kid in our group would break a bone, or do something that would land him or her in the base sick bay, and it was no big deal. The Navy docs and nurses knew most of us on a first name basis, and kind of expected to see us brought in regularly by our parents, banged up, and kept an ample stock of Tootsie Rolls and Pops around as kid fodder. We trick or treated on Halloween, with no thought of x-raying our loot, and we weren't afraid to get in any car with a base sticker on the windshield.

Later, when Dad retired, and we moved to a small town in eastern Kansas, there was still that sense of tight community all around us. There was no place we could go that somebody wouldn't know us, so there was no chance we'd ever be in "stranger danger." But we did fall out of barn lofts, get thrown from horses, have accidents with farm machinery, have car accidents, and get lost in the woods overnight. We survived, and prospered, and learned things we'd have learned no other way.

By the time my own kids were born in the early 1970's, all that was a Beaver Cleaver memory. None of my 4 city raised grandkids have ever gone trick or treating, and my suggestions that they should, have marked me as a highly suspect grandparent who shouldn't be taken seriously.
posted by paulsc at 5:49 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Plinth, what a fantastic comment. Flagged.
posted by Malor at 6:12 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: You might be interested in Cecil Adams' column on the historical crime rate. The crime rate in the 1970's wasn't significantly higher or lower than it is today.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:16 AM on July 21, 2006

How sad to see that parents do not take their kids trick or treating because of fear. The chance of some tainted candy being given to the child is so small.

Isn't the point of a yard being someplace you can send your children to play where you don't have to worry about them?

I admit that I'm an over protective parent in many ways. However, kids still need room to explore on their own. We've allowed our fear of the unknown to rule us.
posted by onhazier at 6:17 AM on July 21, 2006

I have been thinking about this lately. When I was a kid in a suburban neighborhood, there were few fences, and we played in everybody's yards, not just families with kids. We played outside until it was dark every night in summer. Bigger kids of 5 or 6 might be in charge of toddlers. 1 neighbor didn't like kids and we knew to avoid her yard, another guy was considered weird and was also avoided. We walked home from school. We rode bikes all over the place, and our parents were blissfully unaware of some of the stupid, dangerous stuff we did. We had a blast, and I have some great memories.

Now, most yards are fenced, people are more territorial about kids in their yards, and there are, for the most part, fewer children, so those after dinner games of hide and seek would have to be a lot smaller.

Your children are in the most danger riding in a car, or riding a bike on any road. Buckle them up in the appropriate car seats. Make them wear helmets. Teach them about street danger and strangers. Later in life, they will be in danger of obesity and heart disease. Let them play outdoors and develop the habit of outdoor play and exercise and curiosity. Plinth, were we neighbors?
posted by theora55 at 6:30 AM on July 21, 2006

On something of a tangent, see the recent question, "Did this lousy childhood happen to anyone else?"
posted by MrZero at 6:30 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: My 7 year old regularly walks a half mile with his 10 year old buddy back and forth, between our respective houses, to the park and to the creek.

I'm not going to let 24 hour news channels constant shoveling of fear into our lives ruin my son's childhood.

From this site:

Despite intensive media coverage of particular incidents, the stereotypical kidnapping of a child by a stranger is a very rare instance, occurring only about 200-300 times a year, according to a 1990 federally-funded study that is still considered authoritative. Statistics going much higher for so-called "missing children" are usually the result of lumping in what the most authoritative federal study calls "extremely dissimilar social problems," such as runaways, abductions by non-custodial family members, and technical abductions such as violent crimes that involved moving a victim distances as little as 22 feet.
posted by glenwood at 6:33 AM on July 21, 2006

As a parent going on 17 months now, I have thought about this question and have no problem answering hell yes, let them play outside!. I don't think I can express my reasoning behind this any better than plinth's answer, so I will just refer to it.
posted by TedW at 6:39 AM on July 21, 2006

People are lousy at assimilating statistics. People are great at assimilating stories. The media feed them a steady diet of scary stories (CHILD ABDUCTED/ASSAULTED/KILLED). Result: terrified, overprotective parents. I would answer "Yes," but IANAP.
posted by languagehat at 7:15 AM on July 21, 2006

As previous people have said, there has never been a safer environment for children than there is today.

As a bit of a test, try asking this - once you've determined whether a given parent in your neighborhood is of the over-protective or under-protective variety, trying asking them whether they watch the evening news on television - you know, "It's 10PM - do you know where your children are? Coming up next, a threat that can kill your child, after these messages."

I would guess that watching TV news correlates very strongly with being over-protective.
posted by jellicle at 7:17 AM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

If anything goes wrong, if your kids have an accident & you have to take them to hospital, questions will be asked & social services will eventually get involved.

Doctors may not like to think about this, but: don't worry too much about Social Services bugging you unless you're poor. If you look like you can afford a lawyer, they won't bug you much.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:30 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: I would guess that watching TV news correlates very strongly with being over-protective. - jellicle

Depends what kinds of TV news. I watch the 10 pm news every night, I'm one of those relaxed parents that lets my kid play out of my reach, sometimes out of my sight, and that gets looked at suspiciously by other parents. But I watch The National on CBC which doesn't do those "terrible things happening to children, story at 11" or "latest health scare, news at 11" kinds of stories. They report on national and international news - what world leaders are doing, international conflict, national poitical stories, not that sensationalist crap I see on the American stations that broadcast here. The whole focus and tone are completely different. So perhaps that could be amended that watching sensationalist TV news likely correlates with paranoid parenting.

My own experience with so far as a parent (these 3 1/2 years in) is that my own kid ends up with an equal amount of scrapes and bumps as the children of more uptight parents, but my daughter and I take it in stride better, so we don't freak out as much and it lowers our entire family's stress level and keeps us all happier. I'll allow that my feelings on the matter may change as my kid grows up, but I'd be surprised.

I know that no matter how hard I might try to protect my kid from everything, she's going to be exposed to upsetting things, she's going to get hurt sometimes, she's going to find trouble, sex, drugs, etc eventually. My approach is to try and give her the tools to forsee things, to make intelligent choices, to already know about those things somewhat so she makes informed choices. And to keep the lines of communication open so that as things come up, she will know that not everything has to be a secret (knowing full well that it's natural for kids to have some secrets, even from the coolest parents).

This is working well for me, and I hope that it will continue to. But I don't think this laissez faire appraoch would work for all parents. Some would just be too damn stressed about their kid every moment that they weren't right there. So they make different choices, and that's okay. I don't think there's any one Right Way to parent. There are a variety of styles that each have their own advantages and drawbacks. I think that parents (and non-parents) need to worry less about analysing each others failings, and do what works for each family. It's great to look at different styles and take what you like and leave the rest.

But banish the notion of a single, objective Right Way to parent. There are extremes at every angle, but anyone who tells you that there's only One Way is seriously misguided.
posted by raedyn at 7:43 AM on July 21, 2006

Raedyn said it well, especially that last bit. But I've been working at this comment so I'm going to hit post anyway...

I let my almost six year old play at neighbor friends' houses. I've taken some crap for that. I've also taken some crap for imposing rules that are stricter than those of some of her playmates (e.g., no playing in the street, always let me know whose yard you're going to).

I think the notion that sending my kid out to play unsupervised is striking back at a culture of fear is overly romantic. I also think that part of my job as a parent is to ensure that *some* of the things my daughter learns about are from me explaining them to her, rather than her having to learn the hard way. She is, at the end of the day, someone whose sense of judgment says it's best to cut holes in your jeans if your legs itch.
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:56 AM on July 21, 2006

one of my asshole neighbors called DSS because we let our 6 and 7 year olds play on the cul-de-sac in front of our house, and didnt come outside while they were doing it.

Luckily, we got finished with the TWO DSS visits and the dropping of the case (as unsubstantiated) right before we moved out of the neighborhood.

It's been a couple of months now, and my head still almost explodes whenever I think about it.
posted by stupidcomputernickname at 7:58 AM on July 21, 2006

Some of us parents have received Megan's Law notifications that a registered sex offender is living within a certain radius. That sort of thing has an effect on one's sense of security, regardless of the fact that the only thing new about it is the notification.
posted by Songdog at 8:11 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: Kids who play outside freely become capable adults. Those that do not, become easy victims. Kids need to be outside, it puts the land in their hearts as well as their minds.

As a young adult, moving around between states, it amused me when I discovered, most everywhere, the same evidence of kids wandering, making paths right where I expected them to be. I seldom saw them, as I wandered such places when they were in school, most likely (and occasionally, in the dark).

Fast forward 20 years: I find paths, barely visible. Places I expect to find easy paths, are overgrown. Sometimes I see evidence of times gone by. I hear all about the kids that are driven everywhere, and have "play dates", their lives carefully planned and supervised.

The very term "play date" causes me to wish to vomit. I dare say, an important developmental lesson is learned simply from kids having to think of what to do with their time!

Writing his reminds me: In my hear there are still river bluffs and creek beds. Apple trees, maple trees, and gravel pits. Rye grass gone wild, where one can lay down on a summer day and stare at the sky. Within "calling distance" of one's mother's voice, but perfectly hidden from view, alone, with the entire universe.
posted by Goofyy at 8:25 AM on July 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

I'm firmly in the 'risk is minimal' camp, but it is almost impossible to have a meaningful conversation because the terms are ridiculously vague.

What is sexual assault?

For example, the incidence of strange men exposing themselves to young girls in public places isn't that low. It may, in fact, happen to most girls who are allowed a little freedom. Now, is it worth creating a recluse just to keep your little girl from seeing some strangers dong once or twice? It is still a serious matter for adults, don't get me wrong. The flasher is causing harm, and his offences may become more serious, so it is certainly a good idea to address the problem. It is not a serious matter for the kid though, and the parents should avoid making it a big deal..
posted by Chuckles at 10:46 AM on July 21, 2006

when I was a young girl, growing up in Davenport, Iowa, I was given free roaming rights to the neighborhood. Like many others here, I stayed out all day, roaming with friends, exploring, imagining and having great adventures.

And, as mentioned by Chuckles above, we kids actually did see our share of stranger dongs...maybe two or three times over the years; it was always at a distance...We would giggle and take off down an alley or brandish our wooden swords, and then take off down said alley.

Looking back on it, I'm glad I had that freedom, it gave me a self-reliance that I depended upon later in life. And I still have a great imagination, that I hope to share with my own son, who also has free range of his neighborhood, and his own sword.
posted by atlatl at 11:10 AM on July 21, 2006

Not precisely on topic, but still in the general ballpark: last night, my wife opened a jar of olives and the vacuum didn't pop. She immediately declared that we should not eat them. I took the jar and examined it for bacteria growth. Didn't smell, liquid wasn't cloudy, etc. I declared that they seemed fine and popped one in my mouth. My usually sensible wife shrieked, "But what if someone has poisoned them!"

I was dumbfounded. I responded, "I think there was one or two dubious scares of poisoned grocery store food back in the 80s. I don't even think that's even considering."

I'm still here today.
posted by tippiedog at 11:15 AM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: A parent's job is not to get a kid to the age of 18 absolutely unharmed. A parent's job is to get a kid to the age of 18 able to look after themselves. That involves a change from total care of a baby to very light touch guidance of a teenager.

The easy answer of keeping your kids locked behind high fences is not the best one for them. Graded stages of independence offer them the best protection against life's dangers. Obviously the stages have to take into account local norms, but you can seek out like-minded parents to share supervision of some of the adventures. (Another quick plug for Scouts.)
posted by Idcoytco at 11:31 AM on July 21, 2006

A 1988 report by the National Incidence Study on Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children in America, stated that there were between 200 and 300 children abducted by strangers in 1988. The most recent such National Incidence Study, found 115 children kidnapped by strangers in 1999. A relatively few child abductions are amplified into the appearance of an epidemic through nonstop coverage by the media.

... what I've always suspected; this (+ prop 13) leads to huge traffic jams (minivans) when the school day starts and ends. But even for parents who think it's overblown, there's certainly peer pressure (and plain legal CYA) to avoid the appearance of negligence.
posted by kurumi at 12:40 PM on July 21, 2006

The one thing that's different compared to when I was a kid is that a much higher percentage of brand new drivers have cars to drive on a full-time basis. When I was just learning to drive, I didn't know anyone who had their own car until they were about 17 or 18, and even then most kids just didn't have a car. Now it's pretty common for 16-year-olds to have a car to drive full time (either their own, or an extra car in their family), and I think the increase in younger inexperienced drivers makes the streets a little more dangerous.
posted by Doohickie at 1:09 PM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: Several things.

As a mom, I HATE HATE HATE the term "play date." As late as the 70s. kids could "go over to so-and-so's house to play" without shortening it to a "play date", let alone having to arrange it with both families a week ahead of time. I think the rise of the "play date" has roots both in the over-protective parent, and the over-programming parent. You see a kid whose afterschool activities include but are not limited to music lessons, team sports, scouting, and tutoring, and you wonder when this kid will have time to dream, imagine, or play! Still worse, I see moms who shuttle multiple kids between a dizzying array of activities and wonder how they can afford to continue gassing up the Expedition.

I think "never talk to strangers" is misused. The rule in our household -- and I had to fight for this concession -- is that neighbors, policemen, firemen, and people who work for the store where you are ARE NOT strangers. Hey, if the kids get separated from you in the grocery store, they need to know they can ask the deli manager for help! The fact of the matter is that most kidnappings and sexual assaults on kids are not strangers, but people the kid knows. Sadly, often family members. Too many people set up "strangers are dangerous" and inadvertently set up "people you know are never dangerous."

Oh, and let's stop teaching kids to scream "YOU AREN'T MY DADDY!" Sure, that might be an abduction. It might also be an argument with a step/foster/adoptive-dad. "I DON'T KNOW YOU" will get the point across to bystanders.

Megan's Laws are a complete waste of time and energy. If we honestly think these offenders are hopeless and doomed to attack again, put them in jail forever with no chance ever ever of parole. If not, they've served their time, let go.

I played outside as a kid, and even into the 80s I saw some playing outside. But I was an apartment kid. The manager was a mom herself, and did everything in her power to make sure there were only "nice" people and (preferably) well-behaved kids.

As the little guy gets bigger, I try to look out for him without being omnipresent. I can look out in the (unfenced) back yard without having to watch his every move. He can walk to the mailbox with my keys (which include everything you might expect on a mom's keychain) and get the mail without my watching. If he takes too long you bet I'll be out to find out why, but usually it's because there's a package. When the school year begins, I will let him walk now and then, even if I go along the first few times (hey I can use the exercise too).

Maybe more parents should get their kids self-defence lessons and a nice loud whistle, and then let the kids be kids! How's that for middle ground?

On preview, who are these morons who buy cars for 16 year olds?? Sometimes brand new and/or expensive cars! And why on earth do High Schools issue parking permits to all of them? When I was in High School, only Seniors could even apply for a parking permit, and then you had to show a valid reason you needed one! At least in this state it's not legal for someone under 18 to own a car. It has to go in Daddy's name.
posted by ilsa at 1:35 PM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: I, too, had one of those suburban 70s childhoods where the neighbourhood children ran in packs from the time school let out until dark, stopping only for the fastest meal you could shove down and still beg to be excused. It is sad to me that many kids now don't have those experiences and I don't think that they're better off for the endless classes, lessons and "play dates" they've been traded for.

However, I don't think it's fair to say that when I was a kid that our parents didn't worry. I've talked to my mom about this and she says she did worry, quite often, and felt relief every night when hollering my name brought me home. She knew I was safe most of the time because of she knew our neighbours (something else I don't think happens much anymore) and knew who to call if she needed to find me - chances are within a half dozen calls someone's back lane would spit me out. What she also says is that she knew she had to swallow her anxiety because if she didn't let me out now to have these experiences within the confines of our safe neighbourhood and still be able to come home every night that I'd never be able to go out an live in the world where danger might also lurk and might also be more real. Frankly, she was worried that I'd never bloody leave home!

After college (I went away for that), I moved to NYC and haven't lived home since. It was scary for me and for her for me to do that but in the end it was just like when I was a kid: I needed to get out and live my life and if I got scared or hurt I knew I could always go home.
posted by marylynn at 3:15 PM on July 21, 2006

I would not be the person I am today if my parents hadn't had the courage to let me roam.

The end.
posted by zhivota at 3:22 PM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: My parents let me roam the neigborhood all summer long. Yeah it was great. I spent my days catching crawdads in the creek and throwing them at cars. I'm sure
I wouldn't be the person I am today without those crawdads. Also, my parents seemed to totally ignore me for weeks at a time.

This generation of kids can't go outside unsupervised, but their parents take them to soccer practice, piano lessons, ballet, "playdates," etc. and generally their parents seem to actually pay attention to them.

So while these kids will not know how to catch crawdads in the creek, they will know how to play the piano. And they will know their parents love them.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 5:21 PM on July 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

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