Most Parents Aren't Giving Kids Much Independence

posted by Mason - 

There's a new study that finds today's kids aren't being given nearly as much freedom and independence when compared to their parents at a similar age. This isn't surprising news, but it really is a big contrast from the lives we led as children. More on that in a moment, but first a bit of background about my own experience growing up. 

I was 9-years-old the first time I took public transportation by myself. It was a small town, and there were only a couple of routes. It was hard to get lost, and I was pretty savvy about directions.

When our family moved to Seattle a year later, I was ready to find my own way around. The local bus agency had an all-day pass on the weekends, and I would use it to go basically everywhere. Sometimes my grandma went along, but it was often a solo adventure. I discovered the city and region that way, visiting the Space Needle and the Woodland Park Zoo and countless Seattle neighborhoods. By the time I was 14-years-old, my friends and I took the bus to go to pro soccer and NBA basketball games in the city.

A lot of people would be shocked to hear that my parents approved of me going around a big city by myself. But fortunately, it was the 70s, and nobody was going to call Child Protective Services for parental neglect over me taking a public bus. My parents didn't ignore me, not at all. In fact, one night I was a little late getting home and they got worried. So worried that they called the transit agency to see if they could find me. I was about 20 miles south of the city and just needed to get a bus back. (One thing you learn about transit in the suburbs is that schedules aren't always as convenient as they are in the big city). Anyway, Metro Transit supervisors tracked me down easily enough, determined I was just fine and set me back on my way -- with my parents' permission.

To this day, I wouldn't trade these experiences for anything. I took an Amtrak train to Tacoma, ferry boats across Puget Sound, and even a monorail. I'm actually still a big fan of public transportation; and while I love my job, I could just as easily have become a transportation planner. I was pretty independent on a bicycle, too, and occasionally rode my bike from home to my dad's business -- about 20 miles away.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Which brings us to today. How many parents would consider letting their child do something similar? And maybe more important, how would others react? 

A new study compared what parents would let their 10-year-old do, and then asked if their own parents let them do the exact same thing when they were young. Here are the unsurprising results:

  • Letting a Child Stay Home Alone for an Hour or Two: 53% of parents were allowed to do so when they were kids; but only 36% would allow their 10-year-old to be home alone today.
  • Walk or Bike to School Alone: 68% of parents did it, but only 43% would let their kids do it.
  • Play in a Public Park Without Parental Supervision: 51% of the parents did this, but only 26% would let their children do the same thing.
  • Play in the Yard Without an Adult Present: 91% of parents were allowed to do this, but only 78% allow the same for their children.
  • Trick or Treating without Adults: 44% of parents did this when they were 10-years-old, but only 24% would let their own kids do it.

Back in 2008, I remember hearing the story of a mother who let her 9-year-old take the subway home alone. He'd asked for permission, and she finally said "yes" after arming him with a subway map and some change for a pay phone. I'd heard the story from a column she wrote titled Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone. In that column, Lenore Skenazy says that half the people she told her story to wanted to turn her in for child abuse. Although nothing happened, and her 9-year-old got home just fine. In fact, he was "ecstatic with independence." 

Skenazy's story has turned into a quest. She's founder of the Free-Range Kids movement. The organization's "bill of rights" states that kids "... have the right to some unsupervised time, and we have the right to give it to them without getting arrested." Her argument is that parents should be free to be parents, without the interference of busy bodies and government (unless egregious); and kids should be free to be kids.

I completely agree.

We all understand that the world can be a dangerous place, so we worry about our kids. But there's actually a lot less crime now that there was when we were growing up, when our parents actually let us go out and play on our own. We see more of it, thanks to the 24/7 news cycle. 

I'm never going to argue that all kids should have the same degree of freedom. There's a context to everything, from their own abilities to the street on which you live. As a preteen, I was free to use the bus and ride my bike all over the place precisely because I was really good with directions. Plus, I understood the rules of the road and wasn't about to be lured into a car with the promise of candy. So as parents, we need to understand our kids -- their strengths, their weaknesses. In other words, are they ready? And yes, we need to understand the realities of our community. Even as an adult, I don't think it's a good idea to ride a bike on Dauphin Street (and please, not against traffic), but there are plenty of neighborhood streets that should be fine. 

As a general rule, I'm convinced that we need to give our kids a chance to be kids, to do things independently, and maybe get them outside a little more often. Because the same study that found today's kids aren't allowed to do the same activities their parents did, also found that the favorite activity of kids is... staying inside and playing video games.

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