In Silver Spring Maryland a couple were found to be negligent parents because they let their children, aged 10 and 6, play in a park alone and walk home. In Silver Spring leaving anyone under 18 unsupervised is neglect.
OK, “under 18” is simply insane. What happened to the idea of kids being able to go out and explore, have fun with friends, go on bike rides, hike in the woods…without some adult or supervisor tagging along? But I’m not going to focus on the law now, but the culture – the idea that people would consider a couple negligent for letting their kids play in public without supervision.
People put such an emphasis on “being safe” that they go way overboard. Whenever someone says to me “safety is our main concern” or “my job as a parent is to keep my kids safe” I feel like screaming. No! Safety is important but has to be balanced with factors such as learning, exploring and enjoying the world. After all if safety were really the most important thing we’d ban cars – accidents kill nearly 40,000 people a year!
Recently I read an article by an American mom living in Germany who was surprised by the way Germans take care of their children. As she put it:
All the German parents were huddled together, drinking coffee, not paying attention to their children who were hanging off a wooden dragon 20 feet above a sand pit. Where were the piles of soft padded foam? The liability notices? The personal injury lawyers?
“Achtung! Nein!” I cried in my bad German. Both kids and parents ignored me.
Kids know how to handle themselves, and the odds of someone getting seriously hurt on a playground are certainly less than in a typical car ride. She also noticed that they didn’t push young children to read, allowed kids run errands and be on their own. What is “normal” parenting for them (and for my parents when I was a child) is now considered a radical form of “free range parenting” here.
In Silver Spring, Maryland, it’s illegal.
My children are 11 and 9, and my view of parenting is definitely along the “free range” side. I trust them to go out and play and explore on their own, usually with neighborhood kids. At the local mountain they each ski on their own. If they’re bored in summer I tell them: “go take a bike ride, explore.” Kids develop self-esteem, autonomy and confidence not by having everyone win a trophy, but by allowing kids to work as much out as possible on their own.
The same goes for “protecting” kids from videos, songs, movies and other things that are meant for adults. Kids can handle more than we give them credit for, and as long as a parent can explain things they don’t understand and give guidance on behavior (e.g., explain why using swear words in public isn’t a good idea), they’ll be fine. My nine year old has learned the lyrics of Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” by heart (he sings along every time it comes on the radio) – and his questions about the meaning of the lyrics have been real teaching moments.
Yes, there are limits, and the limits change as they grow older. And as kids explore the parents have to be cognizant of their children’s activites: ready to answer questions, provide guidance, listen and explain. If I lived somewhere less safe, I’m sure I’d change how I construct those limits. But overall, I don’t think we do children any favors by treating childhood as some “protected” time of their lives where they are shielded from the supposed dangers of the real world. Too much of that and kids will not be able handle the real world, and will fear it!
Luckily rural Maine isn’t suburban Maryland, and if my kids go play at the park and walk home, no one will call the police and I certainly won’t be seen as negligent. But the problem we’re creating is cultural – if we raise a generation that thinks it’s their birthright to be “protected” and “safe,” they’ll not really learn how to live. When confronted with reality they’ll be more likely to escape, either into safe routines that give order to their lives but prevent true living, or something worse like drugs and alcohol. That is as dangerous as anything parents are protecting them from!