Once in a while I see question like this on Facebook, "At what age is it safe to let your children play outside alone?" Without fail, many parents will answer, "After 13 years," and "After 15 years," and most alarmingly, "Never." You always see a few parents who disagree, but not many. The fact that the majority of parents on Facebook think that kids require adult supervision at all times, matches up with national statistics. Surveys collected by Christie Barnes, author of The Paranoid Parents Guide, found that the biggest worry among parents is kidnapping. Another study by pediatricians at the Mayo Clinic, showed that nearly 3/4 of parents said they are afraid that their children may be abducted. In fact, parents in the Mayo Clinic study were more worried about kidnapping than car accidents, sports injuries, or drug addiction. Many other surveys show that as many as half of American parents worry about kidnapping often, which in turn prevents these moms and dads from letting their kids go outside to play.
I get it. It's easy to dwell on the dangers that may await your child if you send him out into the great big world. However, these fears, based on myth, not fact, add up to some very bad news for kids today. Keep reading to learn more about the dangers of keeping kids under lock and key, find out if kidnapping is as rampant as you think it is, and learn how to relax so your kids can experience a real childhood.
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Freedom in Childhood is Vanishing
Growing up, kids and adolescents in my neighborhood ran around outside all day until long after the streetlights came on. We’d climb trees, build forts with real tools, jump on trampolines, play football in the street, go swimming sans parents and ride public transportation all over the city, even at night. To be clear, my friends and I did some truly stupid things. From throwing rocks to climbing on roofs to jumping out of trees on a dare to never wearing sunscreen to dangling in sewers and cruising on our bikes without helmets. We didn’t always use our brains, yet I emerged from childhood unscathed by my outdoor time, and so did most of my friends. I never broke a bone or had stitches. I was never kidnapped off the street or run down by a car. We did learn how to navigate the world and our relationships with others. Our parents gave us some advice. They warned us about “stranger danger” and told us to look both ways before crossing a street, but mostly, they let us run around making decisions, becoming independent and having fun. My mom was far from perfect, but I have to admit, she did give me freedom, and for that I’m endlessly grateful — because in this respect I had a childhood full of normal healthy outdoor risks and adventures.
Kids today aren’t as lucky. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, points out that many parents today fear the outdoors, including such simple acts as letting a kid climb a tree or hike alone in the woods. I agree. In my neighborhood, it’s utterly quiet. There are no kids zooming around on bikes or playing ball. I don’t see kids holding outdoor tea parties or running through sprinklers. As an adult, I can count the times I’ve seen kids climbing trees on one hand. Kids sit inside playing video games or watching TV. Kids today don’t walk to school, even if they live nearby. I know maybe three kids who are allowed to ride public transportation. All the other kids I know are driven everywhere by their parents. I’ve met teens who aren’t even allowed to walk down the street to the park or corner store alone. When kids do get outside nowadays, it’s almost always with a parent by their side. At my son’s last slumber party, many kids he invited couldn’t come because their parents felt they were too young for a sleepover (at 12 or 13 years of age!?) and the ones who did come, came with a long list of dos and don’ts. I understand protecting kids, but keeping kids on house arrest is puzzling.
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How Will Your Kids Remember Their Childhood?
So many kids trapped inside would be unbelievable if I was just seeing it with my own eyes, but research shows it’s really happening.
- Research released last year showed that kids today spend 56% more time in front of screens than they do playing outside.
- The same research above found that 96% of parents say their kids have experience playing video games, but just 61%-74% of kids have visited a national or state park or gone hiking.
- The Children & Nature Network notes that just 6% of children ages 9-13 play outside on their own.
- Be Out There notes that the average American child spends just 4 to 7 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day.
- Kids today have almost no free time to play as parents plan more and more structured activities.
- 8-18 year-old kids spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes using entertainment media in ONE day. That’s 58 hours a week.
My childhood, and maybe your childhood as well, is full of memories of outside adventures, fun with friends running around, the thrill of going to the city alone and much more. I worry that kids today won’t have these fun memories, instead remembering their childhood as a time when they were stuck inside, sitting endlessly in front of a screen. That’s one of the most depressing thing I can imagine. Later on, what will your child remember?