Why aren’t kids outside?

I saw a checklist a few weeks ago that ran through things a first grader was expected to be able to do — in 1979. Everything on the list was reasonable. Everything on the list was reasonable if you would let your first grader walk four blocks to a friend’s house by herself. I don’t know any parents who would.

I see a ton of chatter on social media about this. Both sides. What is wrong with today’s parents that we constantly hover over our children and barely let them outside to play? Also, given all of the child predators and kidnappers shown on the news, what crazy parent would let her children outside unattended?

I’ve probably spent far too much time thinking about this and have a few observations. First, fences are a problem. When I was a kid, we ran from backyard to backyard without a parent in sight, and there was no worry about us being hit by cars. Now, almost all yards are fenced, which means kids don’t have a large area to run free. Also, kids can’t see over the six-foot fences to know whether anyone else is outside.

My parents let me run around the neighborhood unsupervised from age six or seven onward. So did everybody else’s parents. If one of us got hurt, another ran home. And worries about strangers were minimized because we were together. I’d feel a lot better about letting Eleanor play outside on her own if she had other kids with her.

Also, we should all quit watching television news (perhaps with the exception of PBS). It’s sensational and plays up random crimes that are extremely rare. The crime rate has been declining for decades. I hear parents say that there are fewer kidnappings now because children are supervised. It’s working, right? But there are also fewer robberies and fewer murders, and I doubt that is because of helicopter parents. Yes, there are still dangerous neighborhoods, but most of us fussing over our kids in this manner do not live in those neighborhoods.

We’re all keeping our kids close because it gives us a sense of control. We can prevent bad things from happening if we are careful enough, correct? Except tragedy is often random. I know so well.

Better safe than sorry, we say. We’re discounting all of the things that kids are missing out on. It’s not just the physical activity. I want my children to learn self-control, courage, assertiveness, and empathy. I want them to be able to follow their curiosity. All of those lessons could be learned more effectively with a group of peers than a hovering parent. And perhaps I am naive, but I want my children to walk boldly into the world, not fearfully, to understand that most people are good. How can I spend all of their formative years telling them that they are incapable and then suddenly expect them to feel capable?

So we are taking baby steps, a solo trip to our mailbox a half-block away or to the nearby house of a friend. Eleanor is still tentative, and I tell her “You’re ready.” And every time she returns from the mailbox, she is ebullient. She is ready.

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