Why "Free-Range" Parenting Should Just Be Called "Parenting""In Austin, Texas, last year, Child Protective Services showed up after a 6-year-old was reported to be playing alone in a field 150 yards from his house"
Many have suspected this trend towards today's overprotectionism of our kids comes largely from a 24/7 news media that is eager to publicize every scary kidnapping that occurs. A string of unrelated abductions in the 1980s lead to new laws being passed and an increased (over?)awareness of the crime by the general public. But how prevalent are they? One problem is that we don't keep track of these stats nationally as a matter of course. Definitions, Please
Before diving into numbers, to help us understand those values, let's make sure we're all on the same page regarding the phenomena in question. Non-family abductions are generally viewed as any time a stranger or slight acquaintance holds a child (0-17) against his will, keeps a child from returning to a caretaker (even merely delaying that return, and even if the child does not object), or takes a child for purposes of assault, abuse, or ransom. This can include the stereotypical kidnapping (like we tend to see in movies), but is much more commonly an instance of a minor being detained for some short period of time and then being released. More definitions are available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/196467.pdf
.What Do the Data Say?
The highest estimate of non-family abductions (including typical kidnappings) is 7 incidents per 100,000 children, or a probability of 0.00007 (http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/MC4.pdf
). And that's based on data from the 1970s and 1980s (shockingly, no newer estimates are available). Given that overall crime rates have dropped substantially since then, it's likely that estimate far exceeds the likelihood of abductions today.
Moreover, it's primarily older teenagers -- minors we generally need to trust to go places by themselves -- who are abducted by strangers and slight acquaintances. Younger children (those under 12) stand a much lower risk:
Source: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/196467.pdfSo What?
Overall, the risk of a child under 12 being taken from a sidewalk or public place is incredibly small. It is far smaller than the largest causes of children deaths: car accidents and drowning.^
Given the incredibly small risk, why are we trusting our kids to do things on their own so much less today? Is it simply explained by media hype over these terrible, yet rare events? Is it some deeply set psychological reaction to being the first generation of latchkey kids? Is it something else entirely? I don't know...and it doesn't appear that anyone else completely does yet, either.
I hope the conclusion we can draw, though, is that we should be trusting our kids to actually use
the skills we've taught them. You know, like don't cross the street against the light. Look both ways before crossing. Don't talk to strangers. Don't get in vans driven by guys offering free candy. And so on. If we've done a good job at instilling in them these basic survival skills -- and we have,
haven't we? -- why are we so hesitant to let them use them?A Personal Example
The graphic attached to this post represents my own data. Before I go any further, please let me ask that this not be seen as an invitation to praise or critique my or my wife's parenting; it's just an example that I think illustrates a pretty typical pattern from one generation to the next (and not just in the US: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-462091/How-children-lost-right-roam-generations.html
What the graphic shows on the left, under "1975," is my daily half-mile walk to school as a 6-year-old 1st-grader (of course, it was up-hill both ways) as well as my "range" -- the area in my neighborhood I was free to go explore and play in without constant adult supervision. Note it covers about half a square mile
On the right, under "2015," are two similar maps for my 10-year-old daughter (her mom and I are debating this issue, with me being more on the longer-leash side and my wife being on the "but the danger!" side). Walking less than a quarter-mile to visit the public library (in a rather safe neighborhood) isn't something she feels confident enough to do yet (and her mom's concerns reinforce that), and that worries me -- are we going to be accompanying her down to the library when she's 13? 17? 25?The Need for Risk-Taking
There's a lot of science that suggests kids need some risk in their lives. And no, facing the level boss on that Wii game with only 35% health left doesn't count. In fact, even purposefully "dangerous" playgrounds are springing up in some places (e.g. The Land
Maybe we should give them a little more risk than we (some of us) have been. No, chainsaw-juggling is out, and running with scissors is still a bad idea, but maybe playing in those woods down the street or the park two blocks away where they can't be seen 100% of the time won't be the end of the world.In Summary...
To be clear, I'm not trying to minimize the significance of abductions -- they are horrific and, as a parent, I can't imagine the nightmare of being helpless while believing your child is in mortal danger.
What I am
hoping is that a clearer idea of the actual risk -- which seems incredibly small -- will give parents a little more confidence to let their children experience greater autonomy and accept a little more responsibility. That should support our general goal of developing members of society who are better able to cope with responsibility, to more reasonably make risk vs. reward assessments, and to envision themselves accomplishing things on their own. I hope we can all agree those are admirable traits we dream of seeing one day in all our children.