As school comes to an end, and moms and dads begin the annual summertime ritual of having a panic attack at the realization that their will be children home all day, hopefully some parents will try to get a bit of peace and quiet by encouraging their kids to spend more time outside, visiting friends’ houses, riding their bikes, and exploring the neighborhood.
This is precisely how I spent my summer breaks in the small Midwestern town I grew up in. “Be home for dinner!” my mom would say as she shooed me out the door (and then locked it). I’d head across the street to Beth’s house to check if she was home. Then I’d head down to the tennis courts where I might see some teenagers smoking (hugely exciting!). I’d ride my bike to the charming, old-fashioned main street to do some window-shopping (I never had any money). I’d pass the gas station as I headed to the park. My town was small so I often saw people I knew and waved when honking cars slowed down to say hello. At dinnertime, I’d stumble into the house sweaty and dirty and my mom would tell me to wash my face and hands.
This is the story of most kids of my generation spent the summer. During school break, we were free.
And now I’m a parent and I want to replicate those summers for my kids. Yet, today, I feel nervous to give them such freedom and autonomy over their own time and schedule. Sure, my kids are a bit younger (9, 7, and 6) but at those ages, I was allowed to wander a large, several-block circumference around my house—totally unattended by my mom. Today, I linger at the window as I watch out for my 9-year-old son to peddle around the one small neighborhood block I allow him to circle (he could hear me yell clear on the other side of the block—that’s how small it is). My two younger children stay within site of the house.
It bothers me to not give them more freedom. It isn’t predators that give me pause. I’m not worried they’ll be snatched or run over by some drunken teenage driver. I don’t think they’ll be harmed by a pedophile on the loose. Rather, what stops me from saying “be home before dinner” is the nagging feeling that I’ll get in trouble. (I nearly did a few months ago when I left all three in the car unattended for 15 minutes while I ran in the grocery store, which I wrote about here.) What really puts me on edge is the possibility that a do-gooder, 911-dialing parent or a government official (a police officer, a city councilman, the dog catcher) will harass me, scold me, or even arrest me for not hovering over my kids.
My fear isn’t unfounded. Consider this story out of New Albany, Ohio, in which the city’s police chief—a nervous man named Greg Jones—told a local television station that he believes children under the age of 16 shouldn’t be allowed to play outside by themselves on the off chance they’ll be come face to face with “an attacker.” Explaining his reasoning (I’m being generous using the word “reasoning”) further, Chief Jones said:
“I think [16-years-old] is the threshold where you see children getting a little bit more freedom,” he says.
While the ultimate decision comes down to parents and personal preference, he says no matter how mature a child may seem, it’s what happens after a child is abducted that is the greatest concern.
“If you were to allow them to take off at 7 or 8 and you don’t hear from them for a while, where would you begin? What would you do? How would you even know what happened to them?” Jones asks.
Of course, to many reasonable moms out there, this seems a clear affront to the traditional way children have been raised for years—allowing them to roam relatively free, honing importing skills like decision making, risk analysis, good judgment and survival. Yet, to Chief Jones, learning these skills should only coincide with earning a drivers’ license. Call me crazy, but shouldn’t kids be practicing these skills before their allowed to drive a half-ton box of metal?
Perhaps Chief Jones deserves a break. Maybe he’s aware of some scary crime statistics in his city that makes him feel this way. Luckily, Lenore Skenazy, the founder of the Free Range Kids movement looked into that very detail, writing in Reason that Jones isn’t giving himself enough credit for his city’s low crime statistics:
So let’s take a little look at New Albany’s crime record. Here it is. Last month the town of 8,829 logged—hmmm, let me get out my calculator—two whole counts of criminal activity. One case of burglary/breaking and entering, and one “other.”
Unless that “other” was “crimes against humanity,” I’m not sure just how many kids are being abducted right and left by strangers.
New Albany’s low crime statistics reflect what we’re seeing nationwide—a precipitous drop in crimes of all categories, including crimes against children. In fact, the Justice Department recently issued updated numbers on abductions of children by strangers. Lenore Skenazy wrote about the new figures for the Wall Street Journal, saying:
In 1997 there were 115 “stereotypical” kidnappings of children under age 17—“stereotypical” roughly translating to “like the ones you see on ‘Law & Order.’” These are kidnappings at the hands of a stranger or slight acquaintance.
Last week the department released a bulletin with figures for 2011. Roughly the same number of kidnappings, 105, occurred, but only 8% ended in murder. In 1997, by contrast, 40% did. Today, children kidnapped by a stranger have a 92% chance of making it home.
This is good news, yet most parents aren’t hearing it. Instead New Albany police chief Greg Jones and likely many other police officials around the country are promoting the myth of high rates of child abductions and other crimes. That’s the real crime.
This story, and, sadly, many others only confirms what many parents have suspected for years: law enforcement is out of control when it comes to policing parents’ decisions about how to raise their kids. It’s costing our kids their childhoods and is robbing them of the skills necessary to become responsible adults.