Washington, DC - Currently, in the United States, a widening number of states have laws and regulations addressing “child neglect” that require intensive monitoring of children for a significant part of their lives.
The proximate example is Maryland where police seized a 10-year-old and a six-year-old walking home from a local park approximately a mile from their home. Maryland law says a child must be eight years old to stay home alone, and a child must be 13 years old to baby sit a younger child.
The result has been a new level of confrontation between “helicopter” parents (most recently epitomized by a man that had a drone to monitor his child’s progress to school) and “free range” parents who believe that children early on should be taught independence and given an opportunity to exercise such.
For my part, I was clearly a free range child, growing up in the late 1940’s-50’s. At age four and three quarters, I was about to start kindergarten. I announced that I was a “big boy” and could get there myself (the school was approximately three blocks from our apartment with no significant streets to cross). As I recall, my father trailed along behind me that first day of school, but I don’t remember him doing so subsequently, nor do I recall being picked up after the end of the school day. Nor were any of my school mates.
Behind our apartment was a field and beyond that field, through a short dirt road, was another larger field. My friends and I played there without supervision. I had a solid wooden wagon with “stake sides” that I equipped with various products a five-six year old cowboy deemed appropriate for a covered wagon train, hauled it into the fields, and played “cowboys and Indians” with them—not stinting on toy firearms in profusion—for many long hours—unsupervised. Later when my family moved, I was seven years old, and I walked back and forth (coming home for lunch) to my new elementary school that was approximately four blocks away, rain or shine or snow (but not uphill in both directions). And after school, I played with friends in vacant lots considerably further from home. But this was all “traditional” as my mother had attended that elementary school as a child.
As another illustration, my wife, coming to the United States at age eight, cared for her three-year-old brother in a NYC apartment while both her parents worked. Later, when the family moved to New Jersey, there were many school vacation, summer days when (before she was 13), she cared for her brother while her parents worked.
Could terrible things have happened to us? Yes, but they didn’t. Indeed, statistics suggest that murders and violence against children have dropped for two decades. One perhaps apocryphal statistic suggests that a child could stand outside for 750,000 hours before being kidnapped by a stranger (at that point the child would be 85 years old).
More generally, the hue and cry against “free range” parenting reflects the zero defects attitude of modern society. All bike/motorcycle riders must wear helmets. All swimming pools must have certified lifeguards. All water pleasure craft occupants must wear life preservers. All those in automobiles must wear seat belts. All risk must be eliminated (and there is distinct hostility toward those that practice extreme sports and must be rescued by specially trained experts when their risk taking puts them in the prospect of death created by their risk courting).
Perhaps more dangerous on a national basis is the obvious unwillingness to accept military losses even from volunteers. Can one conceive of accepting the losses from assaulting Vimy Ridge (3,600 Canadian and British dead), even to affirm Canadian national identity? Can one accept Juno Beach D-Day casualties (350 dead and almost 600 wounded) even to free Europe from fascism? In contrast, approximately 160 Canadian Armed Forces personnel died over a decade commitment in Afghanistan—a ratio of loss one CAF observer told me was approximately the number that died in skidoo accidents during the same period. But the Canadian population was barely willing to tolerate such deaths in a faraway country about which they knew little/nothing and cared less.
With smaller families and children arriving later in life, there is a greater investment in each child. Letting them follow traditional routes to “growing up” seems too dangerous. But what may preserve a family may be questionable for a nation.