Saturday, September 12, 2009
Give kids a chance (at independence)
Frequently, when I look at my young cousins and reflect back on my own childhood, I am shocked at how much independence I had growing up. As a young child (3-4 year old), I tagged along with the “older” (i.e., 6-9 year olds) in the neighborhood as we roamed the small area around my house. By the time I was 5, I was walking unaccompanied further away to meet up with friends from school, and most of my weekends and summers from age 7-11 were spent climbing the mountain behind my house for hours on end, again, only with other kids my age. When I look at my cousins or other kids at these ages growing up in the same town I did, I cannot imagine them being allowed the same amount of unsupervised activity.Now, the NYTimes has an article describing the fact that parents basically don't let their children walk to school anymore:
Over the weekend, I was discussing this phenomenon with a friend who grew up half-a-world away in Portugal, and he felt the same way. Together we reminisced about the long list of activities that were common kid behaviors that are typically unacceptable today (many of which were clearly stupid); e.g., riding in the front seat of cars (without seatbelts) or in the back of pickup trucks, riding bicycles without helmets, playing (particularly swimming) far from the watchful eyes of trusted adults, playing with things like BB guns or wrist-rockets, and on and on.
I really don't get this. Parents seem to believe that they are somehow "bad parents" if they allow their children some freedom and something bad happens. Yet, parents actively encourage their kids to do far more dangerous activities than walking to school (e.g., they put them in cars and drive them around):
Certain realities also shape these procedures, such as the schedules of working parents, unsafe neighborhoods and school transportation cuts.
But when these constraints are mixed with anxiety over transferring children from the private world of family to the public world of school, the new normal can look increasingly baroque. Now, in some suburbs, parents and children sit in their cars at the end of driveways, waiting for the bus. Some school buses now have been fitted with surveillance cameras, watching for beatings and bullying.
Children are driven to schools two blocks away. At some schools, parents drive up with their children’s names displayed on their dashboards, a school official radios to the building, and eachchild is escorted out.
When to detach the parental leash? The trip to and from school has become emblematic of the conflict parents feel between teaching children autonomy and keeping them safe. In parenting blogs and books, the school-bus stop itself is shorthand for the turmoil of contemporary parents over when to relinquish control.
The fear of abduction by strangers “has become a norm within middle-class parental circles,” said Paula S. Fass, a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America.” “We try to control our fears to the nth degree, so we drop our children off right at school. It’s a confirmation that ‘I’m a good parent.’ ”
In 1969, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school; by 2001, only 13 percent still did, according to data from the National Household Travel Survey. In many low-income neighborhoods, children have no choice but to walk. During the same period, children either being driven or driving themselves to school rose to 55 percent from 20 percent. Experts say the transition has not only contributed to the rise in pollution, traffic congestion and childhood obesity, but has also hampered children’s ability to navigate the world.
In a study of San Francisco Bay Area parents who drove children ages 10 to 14 to school, published this summer in the Journal of the American Planning Association, half would not allow them to walk without supervision, and 30 percent said fear of strangers governed their decision.
In recent years, parents like Katie have begun to push back. They often encounter disapproval by other parents, scoldings by school administrators, even visits from local constabularies.
Critics say fears that children will be abducted by strangers are at a level unjustified by reality. About 115 children are kidnapped by strangers each year, according to federal statistics; 250,000 are injured in auto accidents.
Another reason is the change of laws and regulations these days. For example, when a person needs to go to a gym, a person needs to be at least 18 years old or a permission for their parents. I see the gym is less dangerous than climbing. The point is things have change for better and safer communities.
I've grown up being walked to the school bus stop and my mom waiting there until me and my sister were on the bus, and her meeting us there once we returned home. The school bus was constantly switching routes in order to avoid bomb threats and hijackings, parents were strongly encouraged to meet their children at the school bus stops and there were guards protecting the school campus. Because of the children who attended the schools, these were necessary precautions.
I think part of the reason why parents have become more over protective is because of the horrible stories you hear about children getting kidnapped, raped and abused. You don't want to be the parent who could have prevented that from happening to your child. Whereas driving your car is a social norm, and people do it despite high accident rates.
Living in an isolated bubble of false security might not be the best approach when the children eventually have to enter the "real" world, but at the same time, because it's how I've grown up, it was comforting for me to know that my mom would be meeting me at the bus stop at the end of the day.
I agree with Bakheet that greater information has something to do with the choices made by parents. However, I also believe that, especially in the past 20 years, the marginal utility of said information (in the form of news stories on abductions, murders, etc) has decreased. Think of it this way: what's the effect of a story like that once every third versus one every six months with about three weeks of 24/7 coverage on fox news? Point is, things like this have a potential, if not a tendency, to be sensationalized (which can get in the way of other valuable information, decreasing the marginal value of the news channels themselves).
I also read the post from 2006 where one of the commenters mentioned something about community size, and how a small town setting can contribute to people feeling more safe letting their children out of their sight. I know this is certainly true of my life. This is probably incorrect, but I'm going to guess that one, if not both, of the above student posters grew up in urban or suburban settings (I grew up in a rather rural one). While the raw chance of something horrible happening to a child might be equally as likely (if not greater, given the smaller size of the community), the perceived chance of the event happening might increase greatly given the more isolated social relationships that can come with the territory of living in a more urban environment, where bonds of trust between neighbors might not have been forged.
When I went to school, as far as I remember, lots of kids did still walk and bike, if they lived in the neighboring area. However, a majority of kids were still driven because the school district covered what many could call a pretty large geographic area, and there weren't many kids that lived within safe walking distance of school (my town has a bad habit of not installing sidewalks...).
I don't blame parents for worrying. Really. It's a natural reaction. However, there are just times when it can become somewhat irrational (kids on leashes?). But if they feel its necessary, so be it. It's not my realm to interfere, especially considering I haven't had my own kids yet.
I think the reason for a transition to parental guidance is derived from an insurance type approach with the expected value of preserving their child. There is an extremely negative result if an injury or, even worse, an abduction affects their child during a commute to school. The value of a positive outcome in the parent's children is extremely high. Therefore, the parent is willing to go out of their way and pay an extra few dollars in transportation and school district protection funding to preserve the high value of a healthy, educated child.
Perhaps, besides gory TV and magazines, the rise in parent paranoia is related to the rise in urbanization. More people live in cities now, maybe cities are denser, villages became towns and towns became cities.
Towns Grants Pass might have seemed like a safer place when you knew EVERYONE in town. Is it the same now?
I'm also curious as to whether the advent of the cell phone will have any effect on kid's independence. I am again speaking from experience in very unusual circumstances, but my parents bought my younger brother a cell phone when he was 11, and after that he had significantly more freedom than I did at that age. Obviously I can't be certain of a causal relationship here (I am the oldest child, he is the middle child, and there are several arguments he has not had to have with our parents because I already had them), much less of whether it's applicable outside of my family and my town, but I do think it will be interesting to see if cell phone usage has any impact on kids' independence.
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