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March 20, 2014 2:29 AM   Subscribe

The Overprotected Kid
A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk-taking, and discovery—without making it safer. A new kind of playground points to a better solution.
posted by Joe in Australia (176 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
As a parent it is definitely difficult to hold back from the bubblewrap tendencies engendered by a hysterical media, but I try. When I think of what we used to do as kids in rural Ireland I chuckle - our headmaster used to light bonfires in a corner of the school yard to get rid of cardboard and the like. We had a full on bee colony under one roof for years, playtimes consisted of throwing sticks at it to get them angry and then running away. IIRC, nobody died.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:44 AM on March 20 [6 favorites]


Yeah, kids used to be less coddled, but kids also used to die more often.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:45 AM on March 20 [13 favorites]


Kids also used to live more often.
posted by pracowity at 2:46 AM on March 20 [64 favorites]


Did the Kiwi school that gave up on rules get a run here yet?
posted by pompomtom at 3:04 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


But the final irony is that our close attention to safety has not in fact made a tremendous difference in the number of accidents children have. According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which monitors hospital visits, the frequency of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, including home equipment, in 1980 was 156,000, or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it was 271,475, or one per 1,156 Americans. The number of deaths hasn’t changed much either. From 2001 through 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 100 deaths associated with playground equipment—an average of 13 a year, or 10 fewer than were reported in 1980. Head injuries, runaway motorcycles, a fatal fall onto a rock—most of the horrors Sweeney and Frost described all those years ago turn out to be freakishly rare, unexpected tragedies that no amount of safety-proofing can prevent.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:08 AM on March 20 [21 favorites]


I refuse to read another one of these perpetually fucking recurring articles unless it's written by the parents of a child who died because of an accident.

I asked my mother why she let me do ridiculously dangerous and unsupervised things when I was a child and she said "looking back it was insane and I'd never let my grandchild do those things but at the time we just didn't think about it."
posted by fullerine at 3:13 AM on March 20 [13 favorites]


You know how all old people have horrible stories of people getting things poked in or out if them, falling from places, being crushed and all sorts of shit?

I think we can do without that.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:14 AM on March 20 [5 favorites]


Did kids used to die more often? In western countries in the 20th century, disease excepted? I don't think they did.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 3:19 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


Did kids used to die more often?
No it's still only once.
posted by fullerine at 3:28 AM on March 20 [126 favorites]


Fullerine and Hal_c_on, did you notice the excerpt from the article that TheophileEscargot quoted immediately before your comments? About how the number of deaths and injuries due to playground injuries hasn't changed much? If you read the article it self it says that the rate of child abduction by strangers hasn't changed, either.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:28 AM on March 20 [15 favorites]


Kids do die more often, outside of the industrialized democracies, but usually from disease and malnutrition.

Yet 4% die from injuries every year. That's about 65,000 kids under 5, dead of injuries. Every year. If bubble wrap worked, we'd have an obligation to use it!

But it doesn't.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:33 AM on March 20 [6 favorites]


Its a good article, well worth reading. The concept of The Land and recreating those hidden places we had as kids but as a playground is interesting as well.

I had a frank discussion recently with a relative that is my age in the US. She has kids and the school is nearby, as close as the school was to me when I was growing up. I regularly used to walk to school by myself from the age of 7 onwards. I asked her why her kids didn't walk.

"Are you kidding?" she said to me, "I know nothing will happen to them but if I let my kids walk to school then other parents would see them and they'd call me urgently telling me that my kids are out there alone! This has happened with other parents who tried that!"

As usual, the culture of fear promotes fear which promotes the culture of fear. These things probably go back and forth with generations.
posted by vacapinta at 3:37 AM on March 20 [34 favorites]


It does have a sort of self perpetuating effect, and not just on the adults. When I was a kid, there were other kids outside to play with. I send my kids outside, and... it's just them. But if I drive them to a more interesting playground than what's within walking distances there will be heaps of kids to play with. I can't blame them for preferring that.
posted by adamt at 3:59 AM on March 20


This marvelous previously -- You'll Put Your Eye Out! -- is a compendium of The Dangerous Childhoods of MeFites.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:04 AM on March 20 [5 favorites]


That was ten years ago. Do we need an update?
posted by pracowity at 4:07 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


Kids do die more often, outside of the industrialized democracies, but usually from disease and malnutrition. Yet 4% die from injuries every year.

This would be clearer as "4% of children aged 1-59 months who died in 2011 worldwide died of injuries rather than disease". More than twice as many children under 5 died worldwide from diarrhoea as from injuries. Clearly, many of those diseases aren't the killers in the West that they are elsewhere, but different countries also have different health and safety standards, and may also have different rates of injury deaths, so it's impossible to say much about the US or any specific country from those WHO figures.

That's about 65,000 kids under 5, dead of injuries. Every year.

Which kids are these? Is that worldwide? Because US child mortality in 2007 from all causes was 53,287 for ages 0-19.

This is a better article than most of the articles on this theme that we've seen here.
posted by rory at 4:09 AM on March 20


That was ten years ago. Do we need an update?

Yo yo yo. Protective parenting has been evolving this whole time. What started as helicopter parenting (hovering around their kids), became curling parents (sweeping the path for their offspring), to lawnmower parents (who cut down everything in the way), to the latest idiom Blackhawk parents.

I try to be more of a baseball parent. I watch my kids like I watch baseball: not too closely, but well enough to follow the scorecard.
posted by three blind mice at 4:26 AM on March 20 [26 favorites]


I try to be more of a baseball parent. I watch my kids like I watch baseball: not too closely, but well enough to follow the scorecard.

And with a beer constantly in hand!
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:28 AM on March 20 [59 favorites]


My kids accidentally skied out of bounds last month. I was initially concerned of course, but "watching" them slowly make their way back to the resort (on FindMyiPhone, naturally) was a true thrill. A display of competence in the face of mild but actual danger is something not all parents can expect from their kids these days.
posted by MattD at 4:35 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]


I keep having to defend our decision to install a wood burning stove in the boat with an upcoming new tiny child.

"What if they touch the thing when it is hot?" people say
"Then she will burn herself and learn that hot things are hot" I reply.

I am a monster.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:40 AM on March 20 [36 favorites]


...to the latest idiom Blackhawk parents.

My 10 y.-o. calls them "Apache moms."

We live not far from a grocery store, and my kids have been going there for several years. I have always asked them to talk with the cashiers and to carry light bags of groceries. Now, when my kid goes in by himself to buy a gallon of milk, the cashiers smile and chat with him instead of giving him the hairy eyeball. I'm more worried about the other shoppers' responses than I am about my son, frankly.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:43 AM on March 20


I don't believe for one second that this is a result of "children could get maimed or die." Yes, anyone who has tragically lost a child or a child's well-being in an accident and chose to use that tragedy to protect others, is partly responsible for these laws and mindset. And their pain and fears are real, and I respect that. But the whole article could begin and end here:

"A year later, his parents sued the Chicago Park District and the two companies that had manufactured and installed the slide. "

This is all about the lawsuits. No one wants to be out millions or tens of millions of dollars, because that's what maiming or killing a child at play will cost. I don't want to turn this thread into another 'capitalism is broken' derail, but the financial stakes are simply too high for anyone to allow a kid to take a risk on their property, whether parents are on board or not.

I hope I'm wrong. My family were lucky enough to visit the City Museum in St. Louis - among other things an amazing climbing and exploration space where everywhere you looked was another parent bandaging a skinned knee or a kid almost completely unsupervised - and tried imagining such a space in New York City, which has a huge need for unstructured playspaces for the 5-10 year crowd, especially indoors. I couldn't see it. Lawyers would be lining up on the first day with dollar signs in their eyes. I hope that we can return to a more sane - and healthy - approach to play options that allows for this if you as a parent are comfortable with it. But it would take a lot more than changing parents' mindsets about safety to crack that wall.
posted by Mchelly at 4:47 AM on March 20 [17 favorites]


Yeah, sitting at the bottom of the hill & serenely watching my son fall on his ass & get back up on his snowboard again & again from 1/4 mile away was one of my favorite parenting moments of the last year.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:48 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


First, they came for jarts and I said nothing.....
posted by jpe at 4:53 AM on March 20 [16 favorites]


Those statistics don't necessarily mean the new playgrounds aren't safer. When I was a kid (anecdotal alert!), I watched my siblings like a hawk when we went to the old, rickety playground in our street. The younger ones were simply not allowed on the tall slides, for instance. Now I take my 3-year-old to the playground and let her run around and try everything. She falls down plenty, but because it's "safer," I'm not as diligent as I was when I was babysitting my siblings at the same age.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:57 AM on March 20 [5 favorites]


Then they came for the jorts and I said nothing...

To be fair, they had already taken the jarts so I had nothing to throw up in the air at them to keep them from taking my jorts.
posted by Gronk at 4:57 AM on March 20 [13 favorites]


I googled on jungle gym and found Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois is purported to have the original but a circumnavigation in google street view has no jungle gym in sight. (In my zip code we called this apparatus monkey bars.) When I strolled past my old school in 2003 the monkey bars were gone.
posted by bukvich at 5:01 AM on March 20


(In my zip code we called this apparatus monkey bars.)

When I said something about the monkey bars at my son's preschool, his teacher informed me that those are now called "horizontal ladders." She seemed serious. So, while I have no strong opinions on playground safety, my fight against bland nomenclature continues.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:16 AM on March 20 [27 favorites]


When I was in elementary school, in the 1980s, they built a new school one year. The old playground was concrete and sharp edges; the new one had soft surfaces (including sand in one area, which of course became a half-acre litter box for every cat within walking distance) and had a similar attention to safety to what I see in playgrounds today. So that's not a totally new thing, and honestly a lot of modern playgrounds look plenty fun to my eyes. The elementary school I drive by every day always has kids climbing on and hanging from structures, for example, and I doubt the kids are any less happy for not falling on concrete.

What is strikingly different comparing my childhood that of the kids my friends have is the freedom to roam. I didn't just walk to and from school; I and all my friends were basically exiled from the house all afternoon and during the day on the weekends. "Go play outside" meant "don't come back until dinner" and could mean anything from going next door to gathering our fishing poles and walking a few miles away. Most middle class kids simply don't have that kind of childhood anymore, and that's too bad.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:18 AM on March 20 [8 favorites]


Interestingly, the CDC specifically points to income being an indicator of risk for playground injury "...playgrounds in low-income areas had significantly more trash, rusty play equipment, and damaged fall surfaces...". Those lucky kids.
posted by Poldo at 5:21 AM on March 20


...City Museum in St. Louis - among other things an amazing climbing and exploration space where everywhere you looked was another parent bandaging a skinned knee or a kid almost completely unsupervised

I'm not a parent, and am always kind of amazed at the apparent risk of falling from a 4-story drop, tetanus, getting stuck somewhere an adult can't access, etc. I'm kind of in awe that it's allowed to be open to the public sometimes. (And yeah, it's awesome.)
posted by Foosnark at 5:27 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


(In my zip code we called this apparatus monkey bars.)

In my zip code there are actual monkeys on the bars.
posted by pracowity at 5:33 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


What is strikingly different comparing my childhood that of the kids my friends have is the freedom to roam.

This is really the big thing that strikes me as well.

My siblings and I were allowed to roam our neighborhood (admittedly on a cul-de-sac) as young as about age 5 or 6 without parental supervision (although typically under the semi-watchful eye of older siblings/neighbors). By the time I was 11 or 12, it was completely normal for me to ride my bike 30-45 minutes away to visit friends, down main streets of our town where there were cars, other bikers, pedestrians, etc. On many a summer day, I'd just leave the house in the morning and find my way home by dinner.

Now, though, only a few decades later, I know a lot of people who wouldn't let their kids be unsupervised for 15 minutes in their own fenced-in backyard. I don't have children, so maybe I'm just not qualified to say it's wrong, but it feels like we have as a society lost all sense of perspective as far as risk assessment goes.
posted by tocts at 5:52 AM on March 20 [13 favorites]


We live about 1,000 feet from our local library, with only one small residential street to cross. All of the librarians know my ten-year-old because we let him walk over by himself. I have a coworker who thinks we're mobsters. My wife and I were both raised free-range (except during hunting season), so we're trying.
posted by wintermind at 6:07 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


Now I take my 3-year-old to the playground and let her run around and try everything. She falls down plenty, but because it's "safer," I'm not as diligent as I was when I was babysitting my siblings at the same age.

The second half of the article is the most interesting, where it talks about a 1972 study into "the geography of play" that brings into sharp relief what has changed: kids used to be able to roam around unsupervised and create whole worlds of their own that adults never visited, whereas now children "take it for granted that they are always being watched". That isn't so much about 3-year-olds, more about 4+, and especially 6-12.

I'm 46 and grew up in rural Australia. I used to spend hours unsupervised in places home to some of the most deadly snakes on earth, climbing through rusty barbed-wire fences, cycling along gravel country roads. During summer holidays my younger brother and I spent many days home alone while our parents were at work thirty miles away, from at least the age of 9 onwards. Now I spend hours every weekend hanging around while my kids (2 and 6) play in carefully designed urban playgrounds. I have no idea how I could offer them anything like my upbringing, but you do what you can. I'd draw the line at buying them a pet tiger snake.
posted by rory at 6:10 AM on March 20 [5 favorites]


bukvich: "In my zip code we called this apparatus monkey bars."

Where I grew up (SW Ohio) there was a clear line of delineation between monkey bars and jungle gyms. Monkey bars were the aforementioned "horizontal ladders" (sigh), and jungle gyms were domelike or tiered structures made of lots of "ladders". (double sigh)

Is this another case of quirky regionalisms?
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:13 AM on March 20 [8 favorites]


The funny thing is that contemporary middle-class parents put their kids in organized sports leagues partly because organized sports seem safe and supervised, and a lot of those kids end up with fairly serious athletic injuries like torn ACLs. I wouldn't be surprised if the free-range kids of my generation were more likely to get cuts, scrapes and broken bones, but today's kids seem to be more likely to get the kind of injuries that require surgery and months of physical therapy. Even if you discount the psychological damage that comes from being supervised all the time, I think we're pretty much just trading one set of risks for another one.

I'm really curious about the class dynamics of this, which she alludes to. Are working-class kids more likely to be free-range? The kids in my working-class neighborhood seem to spend a lot of time being pretty unsupervised, but it's also extremely safe around here, both in terms of crime and in terms of cars. My sense is that working-class kids in cities sometimes have less freedom to roam, because their parents perceive more risks. Also, many of the parents in my neighborhood are immigrants, and I'd be curious about how cultural expectations about childhood come into play.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:13 AM on March 20 [12 favorites]


The idea of reducing risk for children is not only physical - it's reflected in current parenting skills when dealing with accomplishments in general. People of my generation had parents who were, as a group, much less likely to tell their kids they were "proud" of them. I think it freed us to take risks - the worst thing that could happen is you'd fail. The best? You'd finally make your dad proud! These days, kids can take a shit in a bag and throw it across the room and parents are besides themselves with pride. From what I have observed, the consequence is that kids would rather take on easier things and maintain this image of themselves as accomplishing the little they undertake, than take on things that may lead them to fail. It's troubling because the only path to success is risk taking, and what distinguishes successful people from non-successful ones in part is their ability to deal with failure. In any case, I think that this instinct to protect kids from physical harm is in line with a general trend to protect them from failure. I see the consequences of this attitude as a college professor and it's a real bummer.
posted by microcarpetus at 6:14 AM on March 20 [8 favorites]


I have two adopted sisters who are both 30 years younger than me who are now in Middle School. Never have they walked to school a couple blocks away or even walked to a friends house in their sleepy residential neighborhood without literal handholding from one of our parents. Not once.

When my other sibs and I were that age we were BMXing to the wooded lot a couple blocks away or to the creek in the center of town, just made sure to be home by dusk. I can't help but think my youngest sisters are being warped in some way by this.
posted by sourwookie at 6:19 AM on March 20 [9 favorites]


Having a brother who literally put his eye out in his teenage years, I think that there's a baseline of rules that ought to be established and enforced in a household. Like wearing eye protection when playing with throwing knives.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:22 AM on March 20 [12 favorites]


It can be tough to strike a balance. My mother always had a trump card because she watched a grade-school classmate die in front of her on the playground after falling off a piece of equipment onto the concrete pad it was set in, while the class was totally unsupervised. Whenever she told the story, her eyes would close, and she would say, "I can still see her shoe sitting there, full of blood, after they carried her body away."

(BTW, I know it's not a bogeyman story made up to scare us into good behavior; I've since corroborated it.)

Not long after that, she also witnessed a teenager horribly injured after being thrown from a poorly-maintained roller coaster at a really sketchy county fair, and a much younger kid less seriously injured when the carousel collapsed. That's why she always made our aunt and cousin come along to carnivals, so she could excuse herself when we went on rides and she wouldn't have to watch and be nervous.

Her cousin Jack still has traces of a Glasgow Smile-type scar on his face he got climbing on a dumpster with his friends at age 12.

And the pendulum swings.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:25 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


This is really the big thing that strikes me as well.

This is really the big thing that strikes everyone. Loss of roaming freedom is a well-discussed problem.

We rode our bikes miles away, says everyone. But it's true. We built tree houses out in the woods and we slept in them even in winter. We slept in tents and basements and cars and graveyards. We dove and swam in murk. And by the time we were teenagers we used to disappear on our bikes for days, and this was long before cell phones, so if we didn't get to a phone and call home or if another parent didn't know where we were, we just weren't. None of us was kidnapped, raped, tortured, murdered, eaten by bears, or disintegrated. We did not freeze or burn. Bones bend and spring back. Stitches are crude but effective. Singed eyebrows grow back. And almost everyone you'll meet is good.

But things are never going back to the way they were. Parents are paranoid. Schools are paranoid. Governments are paranoid. The best you can hope for is bicycle paths and sidewalks between home and school, because that's the only approved route for a child.
posted by pracowity at 6:35 AM on March 20 [7 favorites]


I distinctly remember going to pre-school at a churchy place that had a jungle gym set into a concrete floor. Man, it's like nobody gave a shit about kids in the '70s.
posted by Sphinx at 6:37 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


In first grade, I walked to and from school, including to and from the school for lunch hour (at home) every day. We used to do something we called "penny drops," where we'd hang by our knees from the monkey bars (over concrete) and drop without using our hands while swinging around to try to land on our feet. Mom had a bell by the back door that she'd ring to bring us back home for supper, and often, you couldn't hear it because you were so far away.

I tell my nieces and nephews this kind of stuff and they all look like I'm telling them the plot of a horror movie.
posted by xingcat at 6:43 AM on March 20 [7 favorites]


The funny thing is that contemporary middle-class parents put their kids in organized sports leagues partly because organized sports seem safe and supervised, and a lot of those kids end up with fairly serious athletic injuries like torn ACLs

And that parents end up driving their kids to playgrounds, when putting your kids in a car is easily the most dangerous thing that's going to happen to them in their young lives.

That's why she always made our aunt and cousin come along to carnivals, so she could excuse herself when we went on rides and she wouldn't have to watch and be nervous.

I ruined carnivals for biscott when I disclaimed any interest in going on a ride because the rides are designed to be easily knocked down and reassembled. By carnies.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:44 AM on March 20 [12 favorites]


Maybe it's the more general mellow climate in the Netherlands or the general sanity of my own family, but anecdotically I haven't seen the mollycoddling/paranoia described here with my nieces and nephews, with them enjoying more or less the same freedom as me and my siblings had growing up in the seventies and eighties.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:45 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


I wonder if what hasn't also changed is adults' willingness to have each others' backs as parents, even for kids they don't know. I'm sure my mother wasn't too worried about letting me roam around my block as a kid because she trusted that if I was at the other end of the street and something happened, that Mrs. Cressley or Mrs. LaPontiac would be willing to step in and either dispatch a band-aid or ice, or call the ambulance if the situation warranted or bring me home if need be. She also trusted - as did I, as a kid - that even if I knocked on the door of that one family that we didn't know too well - maybe we knew their name, but that's it - that they'd at least try to help.

My parents trusted other adults because other adults accepted that that's just what you do for a kid who needs help. Even in small ways - I remember our local Y used to have these roller-rink parties in the gym on Saturdays one year, when I was like eight, and one night when I was making my wobbly way around and around, and came near to falling, a woman I'd never met before swooped up, caught me, and asked, "you okay?" Then she held my hand and skated with me around and around a few times, joking "I won't let you fall, unless you WANT to fall...." and then when the song we were skating to was done, she let me go, and skated off, waving as I waved back. I have no idea who she was, I never saw her before and never saw her again. And I don't remember my mother asking me "who was that lady?" or making any kind of a fuss; a woman saw her child was about to fall on her butt, and helped out, and that was a good thing. And by the same token, Mom was always coming to the rescue of strange kids who were lost in the supermarket and stuff like that ("it's scary not knowing where she is, huh? You know what, let's go talk to the man with the loudspeaker, maybe he'll help....")

I wonder whether the problem isn't that adults simply don't trust that other adults will step in and help - not only because of the whole "stranger danger" thing, but also because we adults are also afraid to step up. I don't get a sense that many other adults are willing to step in if they see a child in distress - it isn't their problem, they don't want to get involved, etc.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:45 AM on March 20 [46 favorites]


I blame 24 hour cable news driving irrational fear of highly unlikely but horrific outcomes into people's hearts.
posted by grubby at 6:46 AM on March 20 [19 favorites]


What Buzzfeed is to cute animals, The Atlantic is to ginning up parental fears. The kids are fine. They will not be unmanned by their car seats and their rubberized playground surfaces.
posted by escabeche at 6:47 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


Tangentially related article.

not sure if I got it from here, reddit, or maybe google news?
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:58 AM on March 20


If we're matching anecdote to anecdote: in my neighborhood, 2nd graders walk themselves if they don't have to cross a big street, and walk with their parents if they do. 3rd graders all walk to school themselves. There's a pretty high-traffic street that most kids have to cross, and there's a crossing guard there. Should I worry that my kids are being overcoddled because there's a crossing guard with an orange sash? They had crossing guards when I was a kid in the '70s. It didn't hurt me any.
posted by escabeche at 7:05 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


I believe that EmpressCalliglyptos has hit the nub of the problem. I've a cousin who had a baby about a year ago. Once her mat leave was used up, like most new mothers, she was unhappily adjusting to the reality of putting her new baby into childcare. My Aunt (HER mother) had a slightly slant take on the situation -
"She HAS to go back to work because if she was miraculously able to quit her job and be a stay-at-home-mum, there'd be nothing for her at home. She'd go crazy. Get depressed as hell. When I was a young mum, everyone around me was busy being a young mum and i had friends and colleague and people to gripe with and people to watch the kids. Your cousin and her husband just bought a new house in a new suburb. They've been there a year, but they don't know anybody because these days in suburbia, nobody knows anybody because everyone is working all day, and if your cousin wants to have friends, she HAS to go back to work."
THAT'S the generational shift. It's not so much about the kids, but about how the caregivers relate (or are unable to relate) to their neighborhood.
posted by tabubilgirl at 7:06 AM on March 20 [46 favorites]


What Buzzfeed is to cute animals, The Atlantic is to ginning up parental fears. The kids are fine. They will not be unmanned by their car seats and their rubberized playground surfaces.
posted by escabeche


For example, look at the linked articles. The very first one is How to land your kid in therapy. Plays totally to those fears.
posted by ZeusHumms at 7:09 AM on March 20


Things are never going back to the way they were. Parents are paranoid. Schools are paranoid. Governments are paranoid.

Schools and governments, maybe, because of the potential legal and political consequences, but for parents it's more subtle. Nowadays I know plenty of parents of kids aged 0-10, and I don't think it's paranoia in most cases. It's just very hard to buck these social norms once they're established. All sorts of subtle ostracism is possible if you get a reputation as a careless parent, or so we imagine. I'm especially conscious of that in the UK, where so much goes unsaid to people's faces.

I wonder whether the problem isn't that adults simply don't trust that other adults will step in and help - not only because of the whole "stranger danger" thing, but also because we adults are also afraid to step up.

I became a father late enough that I got to experience life as a childless adult male first, and was very conscious (in the UK's decade of paedogeddon) that any interaction I had with strangers' kids risked being badly misinterpreted. I wouldn't have let it stop me helping a child if it was in actual danger, but the other effect of being childless was that I was rarely in the same place as kids - the worlds of families and the childless are pretty distinct these days - so the issue rarely came up.

Now that I'm a father, I frequent family spaces, and as a result I interact with strangers' kids more. If I were still childless at 46 I wouldn't have any reason to be visiting local playgrounds or skateparks. I might have seen the occasional kid on a walk in the woods or out shopping, but they would inevitably be with their family; the question of whether I would be willing to help would never come up, because it's been bypassed by our collective assumption that kids should be accompanied by parents or caregivers at all times.
posted by rory at 7:10 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]


I wonder whether the problem isn't that adults simply don't trust that other adults will step in and help

This. I helped a lost little boy find his mom at the park last weekend. If it had been a little girl I would've had to find someone else to help her, or just not do anything, because ugh what is that creeper pedo doing with that little girl. And the mom reacted more with suspicion than with gratitude or relief when we found her.

And I've been yelled at by parents for preventing their little darling from sprinting directly into traffic, because I dared to touch their child without permission.

So, yeah. This.
posted by ook at 7:11 AM on March 20 [14 favorites]


I feel like we have had this conversation so many times already.

I think I am just done with articles about Parenting: How You are Doing It Wrong, America! I get that they are reliable clickbait, as all American parents are filled with anxiety about how we are going to doom our kids by over- or underprotecting them, or not being tiger moms, or allowing them to choose non-lucrative careers or the wrong college, or failing to read them the right books before some critical developmental window closes.

I think I'm just going to continue to make my own damn decisions (along with my husband) about what's right for my kid without any more reference to what some random media figure/self-help writer/celebrity/religious figure thinks. Hopefully I will not end up on the news because of a tragic accident caused by my negligence or because he grows up and decides to rob liquor stores, but since there's never any guarantees with kids, I'll just have to wait and see.
posted by emjaybee at 7:11 AM on March 20 [12 favorites]


Maybe us urbanites have the right idea. I've made a point of being all nice and friendly to one of the two young families in my building, and even lingered a little bit once as I was heading upstairs to my apartment because the two girls wanted to tell me all about their Halloween costumes. And thus, I am now "Miss Upstairs Lady" and I have no doubt that the kids would feel cool about seeking me out if they had a problem.

But that's also because if you are crammed into the same building with people and passing them on the stairs every day it'd be kind of a dick move to not at least be polite.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:11 AM on March 20 [6 favorites]


I don't have children, so maybe I'm just not qualified to say it's wrong, but it feels like we have as a society lost all sense of perspective as far as risk assessment goes.

I had a conversation with a co-worker along these lines the other day about how I always see multiple parents not only drive their kids to the bus stop but then, after their kids get out of the car, sit there and wait for the bus to pick them up before driving back home.

She trotted out the old, "You're not a parent so you just don't understand."

But you know what? My parents are parents and they understand plenty. I walked four blocks on my own the bus stop and waited with the other kids completely unsupervised. All of those other kids' parents let them walk to the bus stop on their own too.
posted by VTX at 7:12 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


And by the time we were teenagers we used to disappear on our bikes for days, and this was long before cell phones, so if we didn't get to a phone and call home or if another parent didn't know where we were, we just weren't.

When I was a teenager I went on a jaunt for a few days, stayed with a friend without telling my parents, who didn't know where I was or why I wasn't at home. I can attest that this wasn't met with "yeah, whatever, he'll come back when he comes back" behavior in the Maryland suburbs in the 1980s. And my parents were not unusually overprotective for their time and place.
posted by escabeche at 7:13 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


If we're matching anecdote to anecdote: in my neighborhood, 2nd graders walk themselves if they don't have to cross a big street, and walk with their parents if they do. 3rd graders all walk to school themselves.
I think that makes the kids in your neighborhood unusual, escabeche. According to the moist-recent National Household Travel Survey, in 2009 about 13% of American K-8 students usually walked or rode a bike to school. That's down from about 50% in 1969.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:13 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


My kids accidentally skied out of bounds last month. I was initially concerned of course, but "watching" them slowly make their way back to the resort (on FindMyiPhone, naturally) was a true thrill.

But see, MattD, you can't win -- if the Atlantic were writing this article about you, it would say that modern parents were so insanely overprotective that they electronically track their children's whereabouts down to the square meter with GPS!
posted by escabeche at 7:15 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


THAT'S the generational shift. It's not so much about the kids, but about how the caregivers relate (or are unable to relate) to their neighborhood.

This is true. The neighborhoods I grew up in were full of housewives (as stay at home moms were then known) plus a few retired people.* There were a lot of eyes on us most of the time.

* I remember the old people as being mean and yelling when we had to retrieve a ball out of their yard. But even so we all knew that we could knock in an emergency.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:20 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


In 2009 about 13% of American K-8 students usually walked or rode a bike to school. My kid doesn't walk to school, he walks to the bus stop. In 3rd grade, he switches to the school that's walking distance from our house, and he'll walk. Yes, way fewer kids walk to school than in 1969, but surely that's because the built landscape is different and many fewer kids live close enough to school to walk there, not because parents are freaking out about predators in the bushes. A better metric would be "what proportion of kids walk to the bus stop." (Though I know there are school districts where they've stopped running schoolbuses, which pushes those numbers down too.)

Of course, you can bike farther than you could walk. I mean, we've had 1000 threads on MetaFilter about how adult bicycle commuters don't feel safe riding on city or suburban streets of any size. My eight-year-old and I ride on city streets together, but no, I don't let him ride on city streets by himself. I stand by that decision, and I have seen no evidence anywhere ever that he's likely to come to harm because of it.
posted by escabeche at 7:22 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


I started writing an indignant post about how they were misinterpreting the data, and then realized that I myself was confused by their strange presentation of it. So, for the benefit of others, another way of looking at those numbers:

In 1980, there were 698 playground-equipment emergency room visits per million Americans. in 2012, there were 865 per million Americans.

As for this: From 2001 through 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 100 deaths associated with playground equipment—an average of 13 a year, or 10 fewer than were reported in 1980. I have no idea whether they mean there were 110 or 23 playground deaths in 1980.
posted by NMcCoy at 7:23 AM on March 20


-I wonder whether the problem isn't that adults simply don't trust that other adults will step in and help

--This. I helped a lost little boy find his mom at the park last weekend. If it had been a little girl I would've had to find someone else to help her, or just not do anything, because ugh what is that creeper pedo doing with that little girl. And the mom reacted more with suspicion than with gratitude or relief when we found her.

And I've been yelled at by parents for preventing their little darling from sprinting directly into traffic, because I dared to touch their child without permission.

So, yeah. This.


Men get that reaction FAR more than women do, and it's sexist, but we do get it, too. I've kept unsupervised kids from getting hurt, (or from knocking me over on the occasions when I've been walking on crutches or a cane) and I get the same livid anger when their parents arrive on the scene.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:24 AM on March 20 [5 favorites]


One of the things that's changed is that in the U.S., in the 1960s, 2/3 of homes had school-aged children (baby boom, younger parents, larger families, fewer senior adults, more multigenerational families); today, around 1/3 of homes have school-aged children. When you add to that dual-income families so the kids are at daycare and aftercare until 5:30 at night at least, there are simply no children around. I live in a child-friendly neighborhood with two schools within two blocks of my house (public and Catholic). People move with their kids to be close to the schools so we have a higher density of child-having houses than normal, and there are just NEVER CHILDREN AROUND. The little ones are at daycare, and the school-aged ones are all at aftercare until dinnertime. There are a handful of stay-at-home parents around, but the recession has visibly reduced that number, and they're just few and far between.

Part of why children don't walk to school anymore is that they live farther away; the child-population is much less dense, and then houses and lots are bigger in suburbs than they used to be so they're even MORE spread out. (If I hear one more person say they moved out to a giant McMansion in the suburbs so their kids could walk to school, I will SCREAM. You can have big houses OR walkable schools, YOU CANNOT HAVE BOTH.)

I'm not really sure where my kids would wander anyway, since everthing's owned and everything's landscaped.

With two playgrounds and lots of sports fields available so close by, though, we have tried to compensate with an "adventure backyard." What do they need a lawn for when they have giant mowed fields nearby? So we have overgrown bushes where we hacked out a tunnel, huge islands of prairie grasses that grow 8 feet tall, and so on. We save them odd bits and bobs, like the cut ends of boards (they use them to play hot lava) and old martini shakers (for dirt showers!) and basically anything they do in that part of the yard is up to them as long as nobody's putting eyeballs out. We hose them off before letting them back in the house. Our neighbors think this is weird.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:28 AM on March 20 [39 favorites]


When I was a teenager I went on a jaunt for a few days...

I can remember when, as a middle-schooler, bailing for an entire evening was as easy as me telling my folks "I'm spending the night at Victor's," and Victor telling his folks "I'm spending the night at Chris'." I don't know that we ever got caught doing that.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:33 AM on March 20


I have no idea whether they mean there were 110 or 23 playground deaths in 1980.

Either way, of course, the rate is substantially lower now.
posted by escabeche at 7:34 AM on March 20


I can remember when, as a middle-schooler, bailing for an entire evening was as easy as me telling my folks "I'm spending the night at Victor's," and Victor telling his folks "I'm spending the night at Chris'

Exactly. Because parents then, just as now, weren't comfortable having no idea where their middle-schooler was for a whole night and day. Which is why you had to make them think they knew where you were....
posted by escabeche at 7:36 AM on March 20


Well, they weren't exactly following my by locator beacon, either.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:39 AM on March 20


There's a low-quality video of my "adventure backyard" here, although all my kids are doing are playing in their vegetable bed, where they grow "tomatoes, radishes, and dirt." (The dirt is for their cars, which require a large crop of dirt. The tomatoes and radishes never make it to the table, they just chow through them as it suits them.) You can get an idea of our prairie and their bush-tunnel from the video, anyway.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:39 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]


Plus, we (gasp!) walked to each other's houses, so there was no drop-off/pick-up.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:40 AM on March 20


Men get that reaction FAR more than women do, and it's sexist, but we do get it, too

I've mostly read this here, but haven't encountered it in person or heard people talking about it. I've never been treated suspiciously or rudely for talking to or helping a child. I'm not at all saying it doesn't happen, just that it's not a universal experience.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:48 AM on March 20


Not sure if this exists, but I'd be interested in a study of entrepreneurs and how "free range" their childhoods were.
posted by Kokopuff at 7:49 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]


According to the most-recent National Household Travel Survey, in 2009 about 13% of American K-8 students usually walked or rode a bike to school. That's down from about 50% in 1969.

I wonder how much of that decline was enforced - my cousins' house borders the baseball fields behind where they went to elementary school. The oldest (currently in college) was allowed to walk home unsupervised and let herself in. The middle child (currently in high school) was allowed to walk home but a teacher would watch from the back door until he made it to the house. The youngest (currently at that school) isn't allowed to walk home, he has to take the bus or be picked up.
posted by troika at 7:49 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


The youngest (currently at that school) isn't allowed to walk home, he has to take the bus or be picked up.

That's evil.
posted by pracowity at 7:55 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


Just this guy, y'know wrote:

I keep having to defend our decision to install a wood burning stove in the boat with an upcoming new tiny child.

"What if they touch the thing when it is hot?" people say
"Then she will burn herself and learn that hot things are hot" I reply.


my son learned this lesson at grandma's house at Thanksgiving when he was 2. Got 2nd degree burns on his hand. You do not want to make that drive. Put a fence around the stove as you would put gates in front of the stairs.
posted by any major dude at 7:58 AM on March 20 [7 favorites]


The younger ones were simply not allowed on the tall slides, for instance.

I remember the very last of the Great Wooden Playgrounds, before they got nerfed in the name of safety standards and the plaintiff's bar, and one of the big differences with them is that the kids themselves would decide what elements to use.

I mean, there were elements on them that were plainly designed for older kids (like 8-10 year olds). I have a distinct recollection of my younger brother having to work up the courage to go down the "big slide" over the course of a season, and more than once getting to the top, freaking out, and having to climb back down the ladder (oh, what shame) in defeat. I presume that I did the same thing, though I don't remember it. (Although I do remember burning my ass on one of those sheet-metal-lined slides, until somebody showed me that you were supposed to go down them on a burlap sack, which made them a whole lot faster too.)

But that's exactly the sort of self-directed experience that you don't get on modern playgrounds, which seem to be designed for toddlers, have nothing to interest older kids, and don't provide any room for growth or personal development. There's nothing for a kid to work up to.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:14 AM on March 20 [5 favorites]


IIRC, my earliest memory is of burning my hand on the potbellied stove in our living room. I can't have been more than three. I had the scars for years.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:16 AM on March 20


I did my best to let my son roam free as a kid but in the suburbs, there's just not that far you can go. Where we lived at the time there were zero sidewalks and the roads were too dangerous for adults to walk on, not to mention kids.

The whole infrastructure of American suburbia is designed making it impossible to be a free-range parent.
posted by octothorpe at 8:19 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


Oh, God, the legal liability if someone tried to do this in the US. You can get away with it in Wales or where ever in Europe, but in the US it'd take one broken arm and a lawsuit to end the whole idea altogether.
posted by NapAdvocacy at 8:22 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


Timely - Toddler wanders from Limerick home overnight - oh look he was fine since 99.999999999999% percent of people encountering that would knock themselves out getting police help there as quickly as possible.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 8:23 AM on March 20


I wonder whether the problem isn't that adults simply don't trust that other adults will step in and help - not only because of the whole "stranger danger" thing, but also because we adults are also afraid to step up.

My kid is sometimes bratty, but I actually have pretty strong confidence that she would do OK in most situations. The thing that stops me from telling her to go play in the park five blocks away - with a creek I happily played in as a kid - is not because I'm afraid she'll drown in the six-inch deep creek and an adult won't help her, but because I worry about someone calling the police, CPS being referred, and me having to answer in a two hour long interview about why I thought it was an appropriate parenting choice.

I'm not afraid of the adults not helping. I'm afraid of them trying to be helpful about the poor, obviously neglected child splashing in the creek with the full permission and knowledge of her parents.
posted by corb at 8:24 AM on March 20 [13 favorites]


I keep having to defend our decision to install a wood burning stove in the boat with an upcoming new tiny child.

We had one of those. The danger is not so much that your tiny child will get burned (although that may occur), it's what your older child will toss in there to "see what happens."
posted by snickerdoodle at 8:28 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


I also burned my hand on the pot-bellied stove that sat smack in the middle of my grandparents living room. As I cried and my grammaw salved and wrapped up my hand, she said, "Well, now you know why we told you not to touch that."

Never touched it again. Lesson learned. And Empress, I enjoy your comments as usual, but have to say if I, as a 50ish man, innocently took an interest in the costumes of two young girls in my building and said anything about how nice they looked, I'm pretty sure someone would get pedo/creepified at that. As a middle-aged/older man, I have duped out to not interact with children I don't know at all, period, end of story because of the insanely over-the-top parental fear factor. As was pointed out above, I'm pretty sure the child abduction rate hasn't changed in the last century. However, you would think that kids are being snatched off of every street corner hourly by the way people act. I have three kids, all grown now, and I'm glad I didn't have to live this absolutely ridiculous life of parental paranoia that seems de rigueur these days.
posted by umberto at 8:29 AM on March 20


Safety in numbers. As many have mentioned, our children no longer have it. The trick, then, is to mitigate undue risk. My kids use hammers and saws unsupervised, and yes they get hurt, but that's life...but they don't get unsupervised power tool use yet, because the damage one mistake can cause is much more significant. My kids walk the dog alone individually, but if they want to be out for an indeterminate amount of time, they have to go together so one of them can run home if something happens to the other. I'm trying to move somewhere they can walk to school from, but no bikes or skateboards without me unless they have a critical mass of kids to travel with to improve their odds of being seen by cars. Safety in numbers is like hand tools vs power tools.

When I was three, my sisters were supposed to be watching me. They weren't. I rode my big wheel around the block and across the street to the schoolyard. When my mother found me I was just there playing by myself...but she found me because in that two block distance I'd passed other kids who, when asked by my mother If they'd seem a little kid on a big wheel go by, could say yes and point.
posted by davejay at 8:32 AM on March 20


I did adult chores as a kid (driving a pick-up so my dad could throw bales off the back in a snowstorm), and took ridiculous risks as a teen-ager. I swore that I'd never let my kids do half the stuff I did. And they went ahead and did stuff anyway. Parents like to pretend that they have more influence on their children's lives than they really do.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:45 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


“Yeah, kids used to be less coddled, but kids also used to die more often.
“Kids also used to live more often.


I favorited both of these and I’ll tell you why: I’m crazy. Out of my mind. Totally schitzo. Manic drooling madman that I am I favorite two contrary positions like an instigator of chaos. I should be locked up.

“These days, kids can take a shit in a bag and throw it across the room and parents are besides themselves with pride.”

Well, if they score in the ‘burn a mule’ category sure. But if your kid stalls the brown sedan or can’t even squirt a “Hershey” that’s nothing to get excited about. But Deficate (pronounced Deaf-i-cah-tae), Dookie blast, or Cornhole as it, and apparently every other activity. is called in Ohio is getting pretty popular lately.

“Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine.”

&
“The gap between what people fear (abduction by a stranger) and what’s actually happening (family turmoil and custody battles) is revealing. What has changed since the 1970s is the nature of the American family, and the broader sense of community. For a variety of reasons—divorce, more single-parent families, more mothers working—both families and neighborhoods have lost some of their cohesion. It is perhaps natural that trust in general has eroded, and that parents have sought to control more closely what they can—most of all, their children.”

Oh, yeah, I remember now why I favorited both of those. The article does indeed say parents and community have changed. As above:
"I wonder if what hasn't also changed is adults' willingness to have each others' backs as parents, even for kids they don't know"

Yeah, what seems to have changed is the unspoken social contract there. All adults no longer have authority by virtue of being an adult because of the changes and so are much more reluctant to step in when something may get out of hand.

I suspect even without the change to helicoptering, this would have altered how childhood works anyway.
It's hard to go into a store or coffee shop, etc. and not see a "MISSING CHILD" poster. And you think "oh my God!" and it's three kids from Texas, California and New York and wtf would they be doing suburban Chicago even without the long odds of happening to remember exactly what they look like, spotting them, and calling the police in time enough to track them to wherever.

I don't know if one feeds on the other or it's reciprocal. That is, we put up the missing child posters because we're scared or we're scared because we have all these missing child posters around. But either way it sort of erodes the sense of community. I mean, the guy in the corner sipping coffee could have an abducted child in his basement, no? Sure the odds are equivalent to getting hit by lightning out of a clear blue sky...

But that's part of the mentality many parents have today. So why would one, additionally, trust them with fire or dangerous tools or heights, etc?

Part of it too is that the focus is on the wrong thing. Danger-wise. My kids want to jump ramps with a skateboard and shoot cans with their bb gun at the same time I have them shake up the cans first so they a'splode really cool.
But in a parking lot I don't let them let go of my hand.

Same deal with fire. There are safe ways to play with fire and it's important to learn that so they don't hurt themselves and develop an irrational fear and unsafe habits around fire. Or carelessness.
There are gigantic differences between carelessness and allowing for natural dangers.
Climbing a tree and falling and breaking your arm, well, that'll happen. Climbing a tree and breaking your arm and no one helping you, different story.

And indeed, that's my fear. You watch parents drive their kids to school. Drop them off. Then speed off like maniacs and rage at other drivers for driving slow (while dropping off their own kids) because - what? Gotta get to the store? Work?
What's going to be so important in your life two seconds after you run over a child? Anything?

It's irrational, but that's the mindset I've observed. And certainly part of why people don't trust other adults.
Somewhere - regardless of the accouterments of childhood like string, tools, small fires, repurposed junk in general, and regardless of the form of the danger from the environment or strangers, whatever - somewhere we deprioritized children as being the most important thing such that we'd protect other kids and play zone instead of man to man.

And clearly, work, or something, is more important. And that's got to be as artificial as it seems. Otherwise it'd always have been there.

I read something the other day where someone believed early humans didn't understand the link between sex and procreation. Which seems pretty bizarre when even lions get that a cub isn't theirs and wolves and many herbivores are protective of their procreation hierarchy (gorillas, say).
There is probably a link in how we domesticate ourselves and our environment.

Unfortunately no amount of money can independently develop a child. The "rough and tumble play" for example. More and more you see kids who just can't deal with low level aggression without some resort (even verbal allusion) to full violence.

Now, I've modified my own ideas on violent video games, but I think these are a symptom and perhaps filling that need. Except of course, you kill a video guy or whatever. But such interactions are inevitably inequitable and perhaps that's the expectation.
More and more in conversation people expect a complete lack of nuance in violence. Just nuke them, for example. Or some other resort to overwhelming force without regard to negotiation or expectation for (at least at some point) cooperation.
Even Clausewitz didn't go that far.
In that regard the objective is not to 'win' the 'game' but to avoid any set or established parameters and simply annihilate one's opponent. You see this more and more in political activity.

This is not to say I think kids should be fighting on playgrounds. But if everything is nerfed, there's no experience in developing methods of dealing with conflict outside of fighting no holds barred until any opposition is destroyed.
That pretty much leaves a kid pretty lonely.
And naturally there are degrees of this.
But the all-or-nothing idea is the general concept. And indeed, if they have their parents, or game system or phone or whatever else shallowly meeting these needs, why bother having an actual human who might not want the same thing you want and thus needs to be negotiated or bargained with?
(Perhaps why Terminator was so popular. Or zombies now.)

Or too, why hassle with nature which needs to be obeyed before it can be commanded? Even if it's your own, why explore your self-reliance or learn your limits and destroy the illusion of yourself?


I think that isolation from ourselves and each other is what has driven that illusion. And of course, allowed us to drive us further from each other as creatures in cooperative play.

I mean hell, adults were at least part of the game regardless of whether they were obstacles, adversaries or allies. And everyone got the idea that they were plugged in to the neighborhood or each other's lives in that way.
We, as adults, are disassociated from even each other. Or hell, even the reality of getting kids to school. Something else is always going on. Something else wants our attention. Something else is more important than what's going on with you, inside you, with others, right now.

And we've got tremendous amounts of media (not just video games) reinforcing that idea.
And being paranoid on top of that.

I suspect by people who either don't have kids or certainly don't prioritize them. Allow the nanny to raise them. Etc.
Yeah, that's gonna bite us real hard right in the ass real soon if we don't change it. Doesn't much matter what we're doing with our own kids either. Which is what I'm saying is part of the problem.

'Don't talk to strangers.' What a terrible concept. How could anyone be expected to learn anything new?
posted by Smedleyman at 8:47 AM on March 20 [9 favorites]


. Where we lived at the time there were zero sidewalks and the roads were too dangerous for adults to walk on, not to mention kids.

I teach at a highschool in the 'burbs twice a week, and there are no sidewalks there. At all.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 8:47 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


-Men get that reaction FAR more than women do, and it's sexist, but we do get it, too

--I've mostly read this here, but haven't encountered it in person or heard people talking about it. I've never been treated suspiciously or rudely for talking to or helping a child. I'm not at all saying it doesn't happen, just that it's not a universal experience.


No, I agree that it's rarer. And more than that, I think they're two different phenomena that manifest in the same way.

When parents get angry about a man interacting with their child, I think it's "How dare you interact with my child, because it obviously means that you're going to kidnap him."

When parents get angry about a woman interacting with their child, I think it's "How dare you interact with my child, because it obviously means that you're judging me and you think I'm not doing a good enough job on my own, even though when you're not around I'll be the first one to admit it's a Herculean task and it would be nice to have some help."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:54 AM on March 20 [5 favorites]


I enjoy your comments as usual, but have to say if I, as a 50ish man, innocently took an interest in the costumes of two young girls in my building and said anything about how nice they looked, I'm pretty sure someone would get pedo/creepified at that.

I think you misunderstood, but that's as I wasn't clear. They weren't wearing the costumes, they saw me coming up the stairs and said hi and then launched into saying, "guess what we're gonna be for Halloween?" and excitedly told me about it.

The neighborly-interest bit on my part was simply in sticking around and letting them talk to me, and engaging in some chat ("wow, a vampire cat? that sounds scary...."), as opposed to saying "that's nice" and continuing on upstairs.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:59 AM on March 20


The number of deaths hasn’t changed much either. From 2001 through 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 100 deaths associated with playground equipment—an average of 13 a year, or 10 fewer than were reported in 1980.

But, 23 deaths a year is almost twice as many as 13 deaths a year. That's not "hasn't changed much."
posted by joannemerriam at 9:01 AM on March 20


I'm not really sure where my kids would wander anyway, since everthing's owned and everything's landscaped.

This is one of the biggest changes. When I was a kid we 'owned' the whole group of blocks we grew up on. Sure parents bought them, paid the taxes on them and maintained them but we were the army that patrolled them. There wasn't a yard we didn't run through. There wasn't a nook we didn't know about. Fences were 1 second obstacles (run flip over keep running). We were like a free roaming pack of wolf-children who would only return home when our mothers shouted 'dinner' out the window. Summers were long glorious adventures played out in the slowly browning grass.

Hide and seek on a cooling summer evening was fantastic. Probably my top childhood memory.

Olly olly oxen free!

Now I wonder if kids even know what is in their own backyards.
posted by srboisvert at 9:03 AM on March 20 [11 favorites]


You know, if we locked our kids in cages and fed them through the bars, none of them would die on playgrounds. None. A complete elimination of the chance of a precious child being harmed. 0%. Nada. No child left (or even bruised on their) behind. And, isn't the life of a child worth that?

I also feel America's security apparatus is reaching this same conclusion re: protecting the public. But isn't safety worth it?
posted by umberto at 9:10 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]


Another line from the article: "As the Tribune reader had intuited, the cultural understanding of acceptable risk began to shift, such that any known risk became nearly synonymous with hazard."

This, this, this.

Evaluating a risk and concluding that it's acceptable makes me a bad mother? Because I don't accept the One Percent Doctrine of parenting?
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:17 AM on March 20 [8 favorites]


We didn't wear bike helmets, resulting in some broken teeth. My kid wore a helmet and pads skateboarding, saving him a concussion, so yeah, use whatever safety help you can get. Nobody taught us bike safety, but roads weren't as crowded, etc., and we were lucky. As a parent, I'm quite thankful for the safety options that made my kid a little safer.

But the bubblewrap - nope. My son loved skiing, which is fairly dangerous, but he skied. Great exercise, great honest self-esteem from genuine accomplishment. My kid was somewhat free-range. We lived in a small city, and he had specific boundaries - roads too dangerous to cross safely. I remember the look on his face when he realized it was going to be impossible for me to enforce 'You can't cross Forest Ave. alone until you're 30.' There are adventures I still haven't heard about, but he learned, incrementally, the skills to navigate the world. Fortunately, he's good at assessing risk. It's scary to let your kid just go out and play. It's also scary, in a way that's stupidly avoidable, to know that if anything happens to your child, you'll be pilloried for letting it happen. But my 26 year old is in great shape, because I didn't let him stay inside in front of tv/ video games all the time. He was on his bike, or climbing I don't want to know what, or building a fort. You help your kid build the snow fort so it doesn't collapse on him. He's still pissed that I made them dismantle the ski jump in the side yard, but it was just too, too dangerous. (wish I'd taken a picture, though.)

I wish my kid had some of the same neighborhood I had - few fences, suburban streets and sidewalks for bikes, lots of kids outside to play with after school and until dark, neighbors that I knew well. I'm glad I was way more aware of pervs than my parents - as kids, we all knew about the neighbor who was creepy, but more than a few adults who were sketchy as hell got away with being sketchy. Probably more.

The things that hurt my son were some real issues with school, our divorce, and other stuff. As an adult, he likes a lot of the way he grew up, except for those things, and it turns out he doesn't love whole wheat pancakes, homemade or not.
posted by theora55 at 9:24 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


So glad we were never injured falling off the monkey bars - the change to soft surfaces under anything kids can climb on is a good thing.
posted by theora55 at 9:32 AM on March 20


In my zip code there are actual monkeys on the bars.

*awkward silence*
posted by BurntHombre at 9:37 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


the change to soft surfaces under anything kids can climb on is a good thing

theora55, this is a good comment on the changes to playground surfaces.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:37 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


octothorpe: "Where we lived at the time there were zero sidewalks and the roads were too dangerous for adults to walk on, not to mention kids."

The roads are what really scare me too. When I was five I got to go up and down the block on my bigwheel more or less unsupervised, and while we live in a similar neighborhood, I won't let my five-year-old do that: there are hardly any kids out so cars aren't looking for them, and there are SO MANY MORE CARS and they drive SO FAST.
(And I am a crazy bitch about it -- whenever cars start driving too fast in the neighborhood I call the cops and demand a speed stakeout. I call UPS dispatch to complain about their drivers. I have called the elementary school to demand they remind their parents that PEOPLE LIVE HERE AND CHILDREN WALK HERE and I have called the Catholic church and told their priest in no uncertain terms that his Sunday sermon should probably be about how HIGH SPEED IS A MORTAL SIN because his parishioners were out SINNIN' UP A STORM leaving Mass. But these only have temporary effects on people who treat quiet neighborhood side streets like highways or drag strips.)
If I had made a 5-year-old error in judgment and gone into the street, there weren't many cars around and they drove much more slowly in neighborhoods and were alert to the 25 kids on bikes and skates going up and down the sidewalks. If my son makes a 5-year-old error in judgment, these cars just buzz on by at 40 mph and never even see the kids. I've already yanked two neighbors' children out of the way of cars, and an uncountable number of dumb dogs, and I'm not even in my front yard that often.

And while I'm on the topic, nothing CHAPS MY ASS like 40-year-old women in giant SUVs driving 40 on a residential side street posted 25, picking up her kids from school, while other children from the same school are trying to walk safely home because she's in a HURRY and is ANNOYED she has to go do PICKUP in her CAR and wants to drive FASTER. If there is a better expression of "Fuck you, I've got mine," I have no idea what it is.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:41 AM on March 20 [11 favorites]


Help! I have somehow stumbled into a secret corner of MetaFilter where everyone acts like my Tea Party relatives on Facebook!!!
posted by The World Famous at 9:41 AM on March 20 [8 favorites]


did you notice the excerpt from the article that TheophileEscargot quoted immediately before your comments? About how the number of deaths and injuries due to playground injuries hasn't changed much?

I don't know if I'm misreading the numbers but it looks to me like the ones they provided suggest injuries dropped 20% (in 1980 one visit per 1,452 Americans but in 2012, it was one per 1,156 Americans) and deaths by more than 40% ("...an average of 13 a year, or 10 fewer than were reported in 1980" meaning 13 on average now vs 23 in 1980). That's kind of significant. If the point is not many kids die or get injured on the playground, then sure, granted, but the way this is presented is a bit misleading.

This is all about the lawsuits. No one wants to be out millions or tens of millions of dollars, because that's what maiming or killing a child at play will cost. I don't want to turn this thread into another 'capitalism is broken' derail, but the financial stakes are simply too high for anyone to allow a kid to take a risk on their property, whether parents are on board or not.

I hope I'm wrong


You're not wrong. The line of work I'm in deals with this exactly. It can be very expensive, but luckily kids getting seriously hurt on playgrounds doesn't happen that often and, well, sometimes when they do it's because the playground actually had something kinda dangerous--broken or defective equipment, really ill-conceived design, etc. But the message that goes out to cities when big numbers are awarded in court is often "oh shit we gotta bubble wrap everything or tear it down". My own opinion--as a father and as someone who deals with the fallout of these issues professionally--people understand the benefits and risks of having playgrounds and places for kids to play, and most people (in Canada at least) aren't suing for every time an ankle is sprained or a nose is bloodied. This is stuff that happens through no one's fault sometimes and a lot of people realize it. Our view up here of the US is that people are much more litigious though, so I'm not sure that's the case down there. I've had discussions here where people have essentially argued that your tort system supplants what our universal health care provides for injuries like these. It's a very different scenario.

These days, kids can take a shit in a bag and throw it across the room and parents are besides themselves with pride.

That sort of reaction very much depends on whose house I'm at.
posted by Hoopo at 9:44 AM on March 20


For a few summers when I was 10-12 years old my family went camping at a long-since closed down park near Parry Sound which bordered an inland lake. I was a good swimmer and loved snorkeling, so I spent hours going around the lake looking at the fish (and the occasional turtle), seeing what I could find on the bottom (fishing lures stuck on logs, mostly) and just generally enjoying what is for human beings the closest equivalent to flying (aside from scuba diving, I guess). The lake was shaped kind of like a kidney bean, which meant that a lot of the time I was out of my mom's sight. A little while ago we were talking about it and I told her I was surprised she let me do it and she said (paraphrasing, here) "It was your father's idea to let you go, and I used to sit on the beach and freak out every time until you came back."

No matter whose idea it was, I'm glad they let me go because those are some of my favourite childhood memories. I don't know what the answer here is, because I don't (and never will) have kids, but it does seem to me as though children today have lost something in a world where they're never out of touch and parents want to know exactly where they are and what they're doing at all times. Of course, I say that knowing that I probably wouldn't be any different if I did have children because cellphones have created that expectation and there's no going back.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:47 AM on March 20


My brother and I and our friends used to play a game. The game was basically that we would stand on opposite sides of a field or road and throw rocks at each other. That was the game. Or there was the surprise rock game where you were having a snowball fight and then put some rocks in the snowballs. That one was fun too.

Do kids play the rock game these days?
posted by Justinian at 9:48 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


In the US, a bad accident can financially cripple a family.

You'd want to avoid Hospital visits too if it meant going into debt for the rest of the foreseeable future.
posted by The Whelk at 9:49 AM on March 20 [6 favorites]


Playgrounds used to have loads of dangerous stuff that would probably make contemporary parents faint in horror.

At a city park my family used to go to when I was 5 or 6, for example, there was a ~10 ft. wide, low, all metal merry-go-round with textured decking in colorful pie-shaped sections that had metal bars between them you could grasp as you ran alongside it to get it up to speed.

One Saturday, there were two or three other kids on it already, and I was pushing it as hard as I possibly could, and when I went to jump on, my foot slipped on a scattering of gravel on the concrete pad, but I didn't let go of the bar in time and somehow got flipped completely under the thing, flat on my face.

I was lying there congratulating myself on a narrow escape as the struts of the undercarriage whirled by above-- until my mother screamed my name and I reflexively raised my head.

Except for the incredibly bright flash of light, I don't remember the rest of that day too well.
posted by jamjam at 9:49 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]


The only two things I regularly did as a kid that I look back on and think "holy shit that was dangerous" was playing king of the hill on top of piles of rock hard snow piled up at the end of parking lots, and what we called "monkey fights," where you tried to pull another kid off the monkey bars using only your legs (no kicking allowed). The first was against the rules at school, the second wasn't.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:51 AM on March 20


And while I'm on the topic, nothing CHAPS MY ASS like 40-year-old women in giant SUVs driving 40 on a residential side street posted 25

And who gets scolded in the Atlantic? Not the speeder, but the parent who doesn't let their kid walk home alone because they don't want their kid to get creamed by the speeder's car.
posted by escabeche at 10:00 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


I really appreciate the newer rubber material on playgrounds. I once fell back trying to sit on a swing holding my toddler. I hit the ground hard on the back my head, but only broke my hair clip. It could have been much worse!

And of course not one of the other parents at the park who saw us fall check in or see if I needed help. That was pretty demoralizing.
posted by wilky at 10:02 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


The only two things I regularly did as a kid that I look back on and think "holy shit that was dangerous"

In the 6th grade I used to combine every substance in my house with a "flammable" or "explosive" warning on it and put it into an empty travel-size shampoo container to bring to school so that at recess my friends could light stuff on fire with their Zippos. It usually didn't work, thankfully, but man me and my friends liked to burn stuff for a minute there.
posted by Hoopo at 10:02 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


We have noticed our park district has started putting in play structures with age ratings, which I think is a good thing! They have taller, more dangerous structures with chain and rope climbing structures and fireman poles and multi-story climbing thinges and big tubes and mazes and monkey bars and zip thingies, uneven surfaces and wobbly things and spinny things you can fall off, and they're marked on the structure "AGES FIVE TO TWELVE" or whatever. The little-kid playgrounds ("AGES 18 MONTHS TO FIVE YEARS") have shorter steps, more grab bars, short tunnels that parents can reach and reach into to rescue stuck kids (mesh tunnels also popular so you can see where they are), shorter slides with gentler slopes, etc. There's an emphasis on sightlines so parents can sit off to the side but see what their littler kids are doing the whole time, and an emphasis on having locations parents can reach in and grab without having to climb the whole structure, so even your toddler can play "by himself" on the little structure with a parent off to the side, and not hovering right there, but you can see him and get to him if he gets in trouble.

I think these are good things because they allow for the bigger kids to have more challenging, dangerous, and interesting play structures, while providing unsteady toddlers with safer, more supervised playspaces, and they separate the wilder bigger kids from the wobbly little ones. We have always had good experiences with the big kids on the playground being nice to the little kids on the playground, and the local rules of chase-and-tag provide that tags are illegal within a 3-foot buffer zone around toddlers on mixed-age playgrounds, but 8-year-olds don't always realize they're about to knock over a 3-year-old, and it's nice for the big kids to also have a space where they can be fully rowdy without worry about little people, as well as for them to have spaces where they can play WITH little people. (Actually -- the 8-year-old contingent are just about the most responsible people on the playground, they always come and get you and say, "HEY, are you the mom of that kid because I think he's up too high!")

I also played both of The Card Cheat's games and, yeah, kids definitely don't get to play King of the Bulldozed Snow Mountain anymore and I am sad about it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:02 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


I did my best to let my son roam free as a kid but in the suburbs, there's just not that far you can go. Where we lived at the time there were zero sidewalks and the roads were too dangerous for adults to walk on, not to mention kids.

The whole infrastructure of American suburbia is designed making it impossible to be a free-range parent.


That's another reason why you don't raise kids in the suburbs.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:17 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


But, 23 deaths a year is almost twice as many as 13 deaths a year. That's not "hasn't changed much."

Maybe. Rare events like that are noisy, and the approximations we use to make sense of probability and risk aren't as well suited to rare events. It's entirely possible that even if the underlying risk hadn't changed, you'd see some years with 13 and some with 23 and some with 5 and some with 40. Or not!

(Also looking at total numbers of injuries and deaths is, in the parlance of our times, totes cray-cray because the size of the population is changing. Even looking at the rate per 100,000 Americans is still pretty stupid. What you want to look at is the number of children and the amount of time spent on playgrounds and get the number of injuries/deaths per million child-hours.)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:28 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]


Aside from my mother’s experiences above, some truly horrible, easily preventable shit with far-reaching consequences happened to me and kids I knew as a result of the 100%-hands-off-we-can’t-be-bothered attitude, so I’m afraid I can’t jump on the “those were the glory days and we’re cheating kids by not letting them be raised by wolves” bandwagon with both feet. Yes, it seems abundantly clear that the U.S. mainstream has gone way too far in the other direction in a lot of respects.

We don’t do happy mediums well in America, do we? At least if we do, it takes us an awfully long time to get there. I wonder if we don’t expect there to always be one easy, cheap, one-size-fits-all solution to everything, that works for everybody in every situation. Stuff is hard and complex, and people and families and situations have different needs.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:32 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]



And while I'm on the topic, nothing CHAPS MY ASS like 40-year-old women in giant SUVs driving 40 on a residential side street posted 25, picking up her kids from school, while other children from the same school are trying to walk safely home because she's in a HURRY and is ANNOYED she has to go do PICKUP in her CAR and wants to drive FASTER. If there is a better expression of "Fuck you, I've got mine," I have no idea what it is.


I live 2 blocks from an elementary school in a relatively nice neighborhood & this is a HUGE problem. There's one thing you overlooked, though -- they're on their goddam phones 50% of the time.

We live on a corner with a 2-way stop sign (one street stops, one doesn't) and the traffic flow through the neighborhood is such that people mostly come up the street with the stop sign, then turn right onto the street without a sign. Less than 10% of the cars come to a complete stop -- most roll through the right turn at ~15 miles per hr. NO ONE EVER looks right. They only look left to see if there's traffic in the lane they want to join. The result is about 20 almost-head-on collisions a day with people driving the opposite direction as they careen blindly around the corner. We have multiple families with small children on our block -- presumably because it's close to a nice school. I'm afraid they're going to get mowed down if they ever come out of their houses.

I will occasionally point at the stop sign and yell "You ran a stop sign!" if I see them doing that while I'm in the yard (hose, lawn chair &cetera... I am that old man, yes...) but only one person has ever stopped & apologized & promised not to do it again. The über-moms in the BMW X3's glare at me like I'm insane, then punch it.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:35 AM on March 20 [7 favorites]


Amen to that. I had all the streets around my grandparent's house memorized at least a half-mile in every direction by the time I was eight; and on the rare occasion I did get lost, I just rode in bigger and bigger circles until I saw something familiar. I would love to let my kids do that, but drivers aren't expecting to see kids on bikes, and I swear they would be hospitalized in less than a month.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:54 AM on March 20


We live on a corner with a 2-way stop sign (one street stops, one doesn't) and the traffic flow through the neighborhood is such that people mostly come up the street with the stop sign, then turn right onto the street without a sign. Less than 10% of the cars come to a complete stop -- most roll through the right turn

Put out something horrific in your front yard, like an old toilet you are getting rid of. As a neighbor to a plumber growing up in the 70's and 80's, I can say that without a doubt, people drive slower if they are greeted to seeing a toilet neatly placed in someone's front yard along with some nice potted plants. If they stop slowing down, put a scarecrow sitting on it. Dress the scarecrow seasonally.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:56 AM on March 20 [12 favorites]


I've seen playgrounds with the rubber mats once or twice, and wasn't impressed. The playground at my grade school was surfaced with little round pebbles, I think they call it 'pea gravel'. A layer 4-6" deep, I'm guessing. That stuff was great. You could take a running start, jump as high in the air as you could, and do a deliberate full-on arms outstretched faceplant, and it didn't hurt a bit. No way in hell would I try that on those black rubber mats. You'd get a bloody nose and skinned knees minimum.

Plus, little round pebbles! Who doesn't love little round pebbles, I ask you.
posted by rifflesby at 10:58 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


Plus, little round pebbles! Who doesn't love little round pebbles, I ask you.

/me removes shoes, dumps half a pound of pebbles on floor, to horrified look from 3rd-grade teacher.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:09 AM on March 20 [6 favorites]


There is a park near me on a hill, and the end of the park, where it flattens out, is a street. When I was little, there was nothing blocking you from flying across the street on your sled. (I was risk-averse and never went far, but people I know tried to cross the street.) Eventually they put big bales of hay (or something) up at the end of the park so you smashed into that instead of onto a street, which seemed sensible.

Lately, they've blocked the hill off in weird ways so you can't get any real speed up. Seems like a shame -- I am fairly sure I would have known about it if anything bad actually ever happened.
posted by jeather at 11:10 AM on March 20


There's one of those "old-fashioned" wood playgrounds near me. (It's newer than the deadly metal-set-in-concrete ones I used as a kid.) It's recently had some repairs made, so I don't think there's a movement to demolish it.

My daughter was not allowed to get off the school bus unless a family member was there at the bus stop to meet her, until this year, when she started Middle School. The bus stop is about 100 feet from our front door. On at least one occasion, I was late getting out that door, and had to jump in my car to chase the bus to the next stop, or they would have taken her back to school. I got to school on my own, starting in 1st Grade.

Summers were spent outside, in the woods or on my bike. Around here nowadays, all the kids get bikes, but they seldom ride them.

When my son was a child (in the '90s), we lived in a big townhouse condo complex. I used to make him stop playing video games and go outside and play. He almost always came back after an hour and said "there's nobody to play with." There were tons of kids in the complex, but I guess they were all inside. I didn't need other kids to play with, but some do.

There's a 40-ish woman whose office is down at the other end of the hall where I work. Her window overlooks the day-care on the other side of the parking lot. One day, she started a loud rant about some "creepy old guy hanging around" the day-care. It went on for some minutes, and included prescriptions for what should be done to "guys like him." Eventually, she wound down and I heard her say "Oh, I guess he's somebody's grandpa." I didn't go to see what she was on about, but I picture some guy in his 50s.

When I turned 60, I was still picking up my daughter at (a different) day-care. I know, to a certainty, that when I'm out shopping or walking around with her, I attract the hairy eyeballs of all the people like that woman I work with. I have worked out in my head just what I will do if one of them calls the cops or otherwise gets stupid, but it really sucks that I have to be prepared for that. Those people can ride their paranoid hobby-horse straight to Hell. I do not at all like what they have done to childhood.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:13 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


Obligatory old person "when I was a kid" playground memories here.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:13 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


The playground at my grade school was surfaced with little round pebbles

HELL YEAH that stuff, plus the dust they kicked up, was amazing. Though I'm pretty sure that massive gouge from jumping off the swings and landing on the wood corner of the sand pit means that there are a couple of those little pebbles coursing through my bloodstream.
posted by troika at 11:23 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


Seems like a shame -- I am fairly sure I would have known about it if anything bad actually ever happened.

Here's the thing though: all it takes is a formal complaint, and nothing bad has to have happened yet. Once the City has a formal complaint about the danger of kids sledding down the hill into the road, they are pretty much going to lose in court if something like that happens and a kid gets hurt. They can no longer say this was unforeseeable, because it's been pointed out to them. So when the complaint comes in, it triggers the City to do something about the park (assuming the complaint is somewhat valid, which in this case it sounds like it is).
posted by Hoopo at 11:26 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


No, It wasn't too bad having the gravel picked out from under the skin on my legs and knees; the doctor was able to get me in the next day, and only one knee got seriously infected. The scars were gone by the following Spring.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:32 AM on March 20


That's another reason why you don't raise kids in the suburbs.

I often read my city's sub-forum on the City-Data forums and there's almost always a query from someone wanting to move to the area looking for a "safe neighborhood", which basically means an area without black people. People are so terrified of some mythical urban gang-banger that they'd rather risk their kids getting run over in the 'burbs than raise them in the city.
posted by octothorpe at 11:45 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


From pompomtom's link:

Principal Bruce McLachlan rid the school of playtime rules as part of a successful university experiment.

"Letting children test themselves on a scooter during playtime could make them more aware of the dangers when getting behind the wheel of a car in high school, he said."

AUT professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the research project, said there are too many rules in modern playgrounds.

"The great paradox of cotton-woolling children is it's more dangerous in the long-run."

Society's obsession with protecting children ignores the benefits of risk-taking, he said.

Children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they work out consequences. "You can't teach them that. They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn't develop by watching TV, they have to get out there."


I like this professor. :)
posted by anonymisc at 11:49 AM on March 20


There's a lot of selection bias going on here, considering that all the casualties of 'free range' parenting aren't alive to comment here.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:53 AM on March 20


I agree that the bales of hay preventing kids from sledding across the street were important to add, but not the part where you can't properly sled.
posted by jeather at 11:55 AM on March 20


considering that all the casualties of 'free range' parenting aren't alive to comment here.

Right because the parents of those children surely moved on like it was no biggie
posted by Hoopo at 11:58 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


There's a lot of selection bias going on here, considering that all the casualties of 'free range' parenting aren't alive to comment here.

The casualties of helicopter parenting aren't alive to comment here either, and they might be the greater amount.
posted by anonymisc at 11:59 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


That's another reason why you don't raise kids in the suburbs.

I'm thinking maybe this is painting the suburbs with too broad a brush. I grew up in a Detroit suburb where there were no sidewalks and everybody had a giant yard. Fences were illegal unless around a pool, so that meant that we just wandered through backyards and neighborhoods and walked for miles in every direction, from when I was in about 2nd grade right up until I could bum a ride from friends who could drive.
posted by The World Famous at 12:00 PM on March 20


I don't know if I'm misreading the numbers but it looks to me like the ones they provided suggest injuries dropped 20% (in 1980 one visit per 1,452 Americans but in 2012, it was one per 1,156 Americans)

One in 1,156 is more than one in 1,452, so injuries have gone up. But deaths do seem to have gone down.
posted by rory at 12:15 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


fullerine: I refuse to read another one of these perpetually fucking recurring articles unless it's written by the parents of a child who died because of an accident.

My brother died from a play-related accident. He was five years old and went through the ice on the lake near our home. I was an infant at the time, I have no memory of him. No one knew he was beneath the ice until it was too late.

I never had much reason to question the way my parents adapted to this new reality - it was my subjective reality growing up - but I am older now and I find it remarkable how my mother decided to cope with his death.

She responded in an amazing way. Rather than shelter my sister and I, she did precisely the opposite. She took us to swim classes at the YMCA, and then diving classes when we were older. We swim like fish. She signed us up for all sorts of wilderness education, sent us out onto the ice when we were old enough to wear skates - she sent us ice-fishing with grandpa. Dad taught us how to live in the outdoors, start (and control) fires, and sleep under the stars.

Fear and tragedy are funny things. I am proud of my parents - they survived and they raised competent and brave children despite the unspeakable tragedy that had been visited upon them.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:53 PM on March 20 [53 favorites]



No, It wasn't too bad having the gravel picked out from under the skin on my legs and knees; the doctor was able to get me in the next day, and only one knee got seriously infected. The scars were gone by the following Spring.


Ha, yes. "Round pebbles"? That might have been nice. We had pointy gravel. This did not stop us from playing "jump off the swings" from the really terrific giant swingset that had, like, ten adult sized swings hanging from a midcentury-looking double arch.

Although actually it was when I fell off the extremely splintery wooden climbing structure that I had to go to urgent care - the splinters were so large and embedded so deep that we could not get them all out properly at home and I needed an antibiotic cream anyway.

But a lot of these things are easy fixes - build the climbing structure out of smoothly machined wood like the climbing structure at the other, bigger town park instead of out of this really strange wood the like of which I have never seen since; get round pebbles instead of pointy gravel; when you build tall slides, make the steps a bit safer.

It seems like it would be fairly easy to design out a lot of dangers and discomforts (and that gravel wasn't especially dangerous, but man, it was uncomfortable) while leaving the basic mode of play unchanged.

There is a public health angle on this, even though it's a rather ruthless one: if kids aren't playing actively, are they developing enough health problems (whether physical or psychological) that it outweighs the risk of active, largely unsupervised outdoor play? From a public health angle, for instance, many cities have decided not to require bike helmets, because the law enforcement/expense/complication of having helmet laws keeps people from biking, and the population as a whole is healthier when people bike, even if some of them get head injuries.
posted by Frowner at 1:23 PM on March 20 [4 favorites]


One in 1,156 is more than one in 1,452

Apparently my parents didn't make me study math hard enough.
posted by Hoopo at 1:34 PM on March 20


Oh, Baby_Balrog, I wish I had previewed - I would have held back on my comment. I'm so sorry that such a sad thing happened.
posted by Frowner at 1:34 PM on March 20 [2 favorites]


Frowner - I appreciate your comment. I agree with your position - it's important that children learn to take calculated risks. And, ultimately, some kids die. It is a part of the universe. We have to be realistic about life.
I think that's what is at the heart of the problem. American parents seem less and less connected to reality - that we simply cannot control for every variable.
And I see this reflected in the work that I do with American adults - many of whom are convinced that if they make the right choices (eat healthy! go jogging! no more than two glasses of red wine!) that they will live forever.
It's not a healthy way to be in the world.
None of us are getting out of here alive.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:48 PM on March 20 [12 favorites]


Most of the really protective parents I know who won't let their kids play outside unattended, etc. also put their young children in the front seat of their airbag-equipped cars, in violation of state law. People are really bad at assessing risk.
posted by The World Famous at 2:18 PM on March 20


I'm really tired of the whole "man, back in the day we shot at eachother with rocket launchers from the backs of pickup trucks and no one batted an eye!" circlejack that comes up every time this article is posted. In fact, articles like this seem to be written simply to create a plausibly deniable excuse to have that circlejerk.

My dad grew up in the same city as me. We both agree it's safer and nicer now and that it was just kind of a falling down shithole until the late 90s.

Yea, he got to ride his bike around and do whatever he wanted and so did his friends. But most of the stories he has are of neighborhood bullies beating the shit out of kids constantly because their apathetic parents didn't care, kids doing really stupid shit and getting burned/attacked by dogs/hurt in stupid crashes by trying to jump home made go carts their older brothers made over shit... and just all manner of stuff like that. He has a bunch of funny lighthearted stories too, but kids got pretty fucked up and had a bad time fairly often too.

And chalking that up to "and they learned something!" just doesn't quite sit well with me.

I mean, i saw my share of that in my early teens too. Kids whose parents just let them do whatever they wanted. One of those guys has a metal plate in his head, got a TBI, and is honestly slightly erm, "differently abled in the brain" now.

Has the pendulum swung the other way and people are helicopter parenting to a totally moronic degree now? yea. Was it all sunshine and rainbows and fun learning adventures before? eh, if you just play the highlight reel.

I mean i never heard any "stranger danger" type stories, i think that shit is mostly made up and if anything was operating at a higher level then and people just didn't talk about it. But the "let kids ride bikes wherever they want when they're 6!" thing gets over-trumpeted and deserves some rational thought.
posted by emptythought at 2:52 PM on March 20 [5 favorites]


And I see this reflected in the work that I do with American adults - many of whom are convinced that if they make the right choices (eat healthy! go jogging! no more than two glasses of red wine!) that they will live forever.

A nasty underside of this is an ugly tendency to view illness like cancer as something a person did to themselves, the natural comeuppance for lack of purity and moral failing, when event he most optimistic (but evidence-based) estimates on the extent to which lifestyle can mitigate the chances tells a different story.
posted by anonymisc at 2:53 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


My kid just can't have the childhood I had of playing ball out on the street and roaming the neighborhood on her bike because people in their cars and street set up is just a million times crazier than it used to be.

Cars regularly go the wrong way around the traffic circle in front of my house, despite all the arrow signs pointing the way. There are no sidewalks because I think my neighbors don't want to lose the valuable square footage from their yards. The higher altitudes that now-popular SUVs position the driver at seems to me to make it more difficult to see pedestrians and smaller bicyclists. And drivers here definitely go at higher speeds and have more distractions than drivers when I was a kid -- I do think there is more time pressure on everyone now. It is just a different landscape out there for kids on bikes now, IMHO.

I also just don't understand some of the traffic decisions that have been made in the recent past. Recently in my neighborhood the mother to three young children was killed when strapping her toddler in her SUV outside the elementary school where she had just volunteered her time. She was hit by a dump truck. It appears the driver of the truck was apparently not speeding or texting or doing anything very wrong, but the roads by the school had recently been made more narrow as part of the county's traffic calming measures. That just doesn't make any sense to me, making a road narrower to make it more safe!

It's all so fleeting and final, here one minute then, poof, one small mistake or misjudgment and it's all gone. It is certainly sobering to me.
posted by onlyconnect at 2:55 PM on March 20


My kid just can't have the childhood I had of playing ball out on the street and roaming the neighborhood on her bike because people in their cars and street set up is just a million times crazier than it used to be.

Part of the reason why it's crazier is because there aren't kids on the streets any more - streets are deserted of everything but cars, and people drive accordingly. These things feed off each other.
posted by anonymisc at 3:37 PM on March 20


Cars regularly go the wrong way around the traffic circle in front of my house, despite all the arrow signs pointing the way

don't even get me started. I've heard lawyers, mediators, and judges suggest that there should be signage facing the wrong way on one-way streets to warn people that are going the wrong way. On a road where giant arrows are painted on the ground. I'm like, I understand you want to help but you are just encouraging these people, please stop.
posted by Hoopo at 3:39 PM on March 20


Fullerine and Hal_c_on, did you notice the excerpt from the article that TheophileEscargot quoted immediately before your comments? About how the number of deaths and injuries due to playground injuries hasn't changed much?

Is it "the number of deaths" or "the rate of deaths" hasn't changed much? Because if its the number of deaths...I think thats great. There's a lot more people today...including a lot more people using playgrounds that are tracked in studies like this (rather than "the old sawmill"), so if the number isn't changing...but the population and use is increasing...then thats great.

But I'd be hard-pressed to believe that one is just as likely to die because of accident-related injuries on a modern-day playground as on a playground in 1964.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:00 PM on March 20


My dad grew up in the same city as me. We both agree it's safer and nicer now and that it was just kind of a falling down shithole until the late 90s.

The thing that I keep coming back to is this, actually. I grew up playing outside--unsupervised!--and riding my bike all over the place, and etc. And, as you've said, the world is safer and nicer now. Go look at the crime over time section of the Wiki article on crime in the United States. Hit show years, and look at the graph. For all violent crimes, you see a giant spike that lasts from the 70s through the mid-90s, and then suddenly it just...drops.

We rode our bikes and all that in a time that was significantly more dangerous. Even if we did literally nothing differently with our kids than our parents did with us, our kids would still be safer, because the world is a safer place. And I don't think that we can flatter ourselves into thinking that oh, it's our ~magical drone parenting~ that's making things safer, because these trends go back twenty years--well before the obsessive parenting crowd was making waves.

So our kids are safer--yay! But that's not enough, because we'd like to make them not only safe, but also accident-proof. Which will never happen, no matter how many soft mats we install, how many devastated parents we accuse of murder for daring to look away from their children for moments, how many children aren't allowed to do things like walk to the drugstore and buy a candy bar. Accepting that some risk is inherent in our lives, and the lives of our children, is staggeringly difficult for many people. I don't think we're seeing a pendulum of risk-ok/risk-avoidant parenting, but rather a reaction to a world that's so much safer than the world of fifty or a hundred years ago. We don't have to accept that we're likely to see some of our children die of disease before they're five. We don't have to send our children to work; we expect that they'll be educated at least through high school. Cars are less deadly, traffic fatalities per capita are fewer, etc, etc. The risk that comes hand in hand with being alive is less than it's ever been, and I can't help but feel that we've internalised that to the point that we feel that any risk at all is unacceptable, rather than unavoidable.
posted by MeghanC at 4:02 PM on March 20 [9 favorites]


...City Museum in St. Louis - among other things an amazing climbing and exploration space where everywhere you looked was another parent bandaging a skinned knee or a kid almost completely unsupervised

I went there last summer, and oh man is that place amazing or what. Terrible name, btw, because it's completely unimaginative, unlike the place itself which is only part museum and mostly an insane playground like I've never seen before. If you're ever in St. Louis and you have kids--and even if you don't have kids and like climbing and crawling and sliding as if you were--the City Museum is a must.

My son had just turned four when we went and most of the play spaces were a little too hardcore for him, alone at least. I had to help him along with a lot of things. But for kids from about 7-12 (and up), it's like paradise.
posted by zardoz at 4:04 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


OnlyConnect, re: narrowing roadways to make them safer: the term you want to google is traffic psychology. There's a very interesting paper on it here, and the book Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do is a nicely presented and very readable (if somewhat shallow) overview of the subject. (Not a traffic psychologist; this is just the sort of thing that I find interesting.)
posted by MeghanC at 4:05 PM on March 20


We used to do something we called "penny drops," where we'd hang by our knees from the monkey bars (over concrete) and drop without using our hands while swinging around to try to land on our feet.

And "nickel drops", where you sit on the bar, then fall backward and swing by the knees and flip off the bars, all in one smooth motion, and land (ideally) on your feet. The ground was covered in woodchips, so if you blew it, you got a face full of splinters.

I remember the golden year when my motor skills were sufficient to master the penny drop, before my frame grew too ungainly to perform it. I still feel a thrill recalling the ecstasy of my first successful nickel drop.

There was also something called a "dime drop." I never did one, and I don't remember how exactly it was supposed to go. It may have been a physically impossible like swinging the swing up over the bar.
posted by BrashTech at 4:16 PM on March 20 [4 favorites]


TheophileEscargot: " According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which monitors hospital visits, the frequency of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, including home equipment, in 1980 was 156,000, or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it was 271,475, or one per 1,156 Americans."

Those numbers don't speak to the severity of the incident. Reduced injuries could be masked by people bringing their kids to the ER for less severe injuries. I've seen this in the workplace where anything less than stitches or a broken bone was put a band aid on and keep working. Now we have to fill out a report to get a band aid.

Dip Flash: "I've mostly read this here, but haven't encountered it in person or heard people talking about it. I've never been treated suspiciously or rudely for talking to or helping a child. I'm not at all saying it doesn't happen, just that it's not a universal experience."

I haven't had much of that but I've had several uncomfortable conversations with parents/life guards/rent a cops for having the audacity to photograph my daughter with a moderate zoom. People freak right the fuck out if you are male and they think you are photographing kids.

Cops also freak out if you take pictures of non classically photogenic landscapes but that is a different issue.

Kokopuff: "Not sure if this exists, but I'd be interested in a study of entrepreneurs and how "free range" their childhoods were."

I know lots of homeless people were free range kids.
posted by Mitheral at 4:19 PM on March 20


I also burned my hand on the pot-bellied stove that sat smack in the middle of my grandparents living room. As I cried and my grammaw salved and wrapped up my hand, she said, "Well, now you know why we told you not to touch that."

Never touched it again. Lesson learned.


I didn't touch the potbellied stove because I hadn't learned a lesson. It was near the step down into the living room, I was a little unsteady on my feet like a lot of preschoolers, and I automatically put my hand out to break my fall without realizing what was in front of it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:25 PM on March 20


I'm really tired of the whole "man, back in the day we shot at each other with rocket launchers from the backs of pickup trucks and no one batted an eye!" circlejack that comes up every time this article is posted. In fact, articles like this seem to be written simply to create a plausibly deniable excuse to have that circlejerk.

But that's not what this article is doing, as I read it. It's not what I was doing when I mentioned growing up with snakes in the backyard, either. Partly that was a nod to our post author, and partly because mentioning it is good for a thrill for a non-Australian audience - but hey, I'm sure some of you had cougars or bears roaming past your back fence. (As any Aussies reading this will know, snakes aren't actually an omnipresent danger in Australia, not even to kids roaming the countryside unsupervised. Kids are noisy, and snakes hate noise and try to get away from it.)

The article seems more to be about acknowledging the changes that have happened, the reasons for them - some sensible and obvious, some based on distorted perceptions of risk - and how there might be ways of readjusting the balance without ignoring all the obvious risks you mention, to recapture some of the positive aspects we've lost. Her discussion with Roger Hart, the author of that 1970s study of childhood geography, is far from black and white: "he’s wary of running into his own nostalgia for the Rousseauean children of his memories. For example, he said he has to be honest about the things that have improved in the new version of childhood."

My father, who was born during the second world war, lost his favourite cousin as a kid when she stuck her head out of a bus window at the wrong moment. By the 1970s any parent or carer would have come down hard on their kids for trying anything like that; we had collectively learnt that the innocent pleasure of the wind on one's face wasn't worth that particular risk. Some injuries can't be patched up. Many of the precautions we take today fall into a similar category, no doubt; but some are about preventing injuries that aren't that bad in the grand scheme of things, or risks that are minute. If that comes at a cost to other aspects of children's development, we should reassess, especially if the information about those other costs is new, and what we thought we knew about the risks isn't as reliable as we thought.
posted by rory at 4:33 PM on March 20 [4 favorites]


The Land is basically what my two-thirds-acre yard (and to a lesser extent, our basement) was like as a kid. Now, I thought I was overprotected when I was growing up, and socially, I was—my father would almost never let me go anywhere by myself until I went to college. (Later in grade school, sometimes I got to ride my bike around the closest part of the subdivision above our house, and when I was in high school, I got to go for the occasional training run for soccer up there by myself, but that was about it. Otherwise, some adult had to be present, and I almost never got to go to sleepovers.)

But they would let me—and in fact sometimes would literally lock me and my brother out of the house to force us to—wander around outside in our yard for hours on end. My brother and I had our initial playhouse in the angle-iron and firebrick ruins of their old outdoor kiln, finding "treasure" in the form of melted pyrometric cones, and we'd play house in the bushes, too. Eventually I helped my father build a wooden-plank playhouse with a trapdoor, where the old chicken coop used to be (apparently I chased around the last of the chickens when I was really little). But I also nailed Masonite high up in a pine tree to build a makeshift treehouse (and tried that whole stupid thing from the Boy Scout handbook about chewing dried pine sap like gum, which totally didn't work), as well as attempted whittling with my pocketknife (while sitting in the wobbly pine tree). We had a large muddy area called the "digging hole" (where I once dug up some kind of ancient knockoff LEGO with long skinny bars on top instead of pegs). We also had a splintery rope-and-plank swing that my father hung from a big branch of the old tulip poplar tree, whose rubbing motion I always vaguely worried would break the branch off one day or snap the rope (but it never did either).

The old angle-iron trailer with wooden sides was our "boat," naturally, on the "ocean" that was the concrete turnaround. I'd rollerblade in circles or up and down the long driveway, using a lattice slat as the next best thing to a real hockey stick, while my brother tried to ram me with his bike. We'd shoot endless baskets, or sometimes just throw the basketball at each other, or kick it or a soccer ball as hard as we could at each other, or play catch as hard as we could, or run around soaking each other with squirt bottles repurposed as water guns... And there were always concrete blocks and chunks of concrete around (some from the old kiln, some from the old front porch, both of which my father busted up at some point) to use for various purposes.

That, of course, set the scene for the minor childhood tragedy I never lived down, at least within the family. We were doing all of the above one day, pretty bored, and I was on the "boat" when my brother threw one of the many chunks of concrete lying around at my head. He missed, and I picked it up and lobbed it back in a big, slow arc, thinking he'd have the sense to get out from under it. Instead, he went the wrong direction, and it chunked him in the back of the head. He began sobbing, and when he turned around, I saw that he was bleeding from the back of the head. I couldn't stop the tears or the bleeding, so I told him to go inside. And not long after, I got called inside to get the beating of my life. It was...a lovely day. But he turned out fine...

So yeah, some aspects of my quasi-confined free-range childhood weren't so great, but about other aspects, I'm incredibly nostalgic these days, especially now that my father has moved into an assisted-living facility and we're considering selling the house. I find myself in sort of a slow daze when I'm there, remembering all the stupid (but great!) stuff I did as a the child of DIYers, like taking apart a cut-off extension-cord plug and carefully, carefully plugging one of the removed prongs into a basement outlet while holding it with a length of fabric, then eventually trying to plug the other one in, and just barely brushing the back of a finger against the first one, shocking myself. When I was even younger, I blew out a circuit in part of the house by pulling a nightlight halfway out of the wall, then trying to light up an extra bulb by touching it to one of the prongs, so this was just another experiment in that vein. In a less dangerous vein, my brother and I used to jump from one couch to another upstairs, playing avoid-the-lava, and later would build a huge tunnel across much of the finished side of the basement, beneath the ping-pong table and various boxes, covered with old sheets, "decorated" with my mother's colored drawing inks (she was, uh, thrilled at our creativity). Our house was completely dirty, our pastimes potentially dangerous in a lot of ways, and the vast library of books available not always standard childhood reading (I believe I read Richard Brautigan's The Abortion at age 9, for instance).

But damn, I got a lot out of it, and I've lately found myself wishing, on some level, that I could either buy the place and renovate it for any future kids to enjoy or enact my onetime adolescent dream of razing the entire place, in one cleansing act, and turning the property into a public park and playground. I have such awesome memories of the early playground at my elementary school (completely with a big metal twisty slide)—jumping off of the slide tower into the gravel, shimmying up the outside support poles of the slide tower (which they'd scold you for if they caught you), learning to navigate the geodesic dome and monkey bars, playing tetherball and dodgeball like an utterly untouchable banshee, searching for agate among the pea gravel, playing My Little Pony by rolling down a grassy hill and jumping around on a "boat" made of old tires anchored together, playing a game with friends called "Suicide!" in which our first act of recess would be to race to a tall contraption made of chains, scale it as fast as possible, and jump off, yelling SUICIIIIIDE! God, those were the days—I even organized a weekend four-square tournament with my friends on the playground one time.

All of this, I fear, is being lost these days. And I'm determined to find some way to give my future kids the supposedly dangerous childhood they deserve.
posted by limeonaire at 7:33 PM on March 20 [2 favorites]


As any Aussies reading this will know, snakes aren't actually an omnipresent danger in Australia, not even to kids roaming the countryside unsupervised. Kids are noisy, and snakes hate noise and try to get away from it.

We had "be scared of snakes" class in (late 70s) primary school, where a herpetologist came in and explained how quickly a brown snake would kill you, and why you should not walk through the long grass in Summer, and that you should stomp as loudly as you could when you did.

Then you got to play with a blue-tongue.

I swear I'm more scared of snakes than a sane person because of this - and of course I'm now a lattechardonnay* inner city type, so it doesn't matter anyway.

*Has the drink changed again? I feel I'm out of the loop.
posted by pompomtom at 9:02 PM on March 20


There's one of these Adventure Playgrounds in Berkeley, CA.

Though I think if you live in a more rural area, the adventure playground is just the empty field or woods a short walk away.
posted by eye of newt at 11:13 PM on March 20


Count me with the parents who have had enough of these kinds of stories. There is no one way to parent. Some of the parents I know who promote kids being "free range" seem to me to be just not that interested in being involved parents. They make it pretty clear in discussions that they find parenting burdensome and annoying. And there are plenty of others who advocate a more hands-off approach because it was what they had as kids and they have fond memories of their own liberated childhoods. And I'm sure there are plenty of other reasons some parents want to parent that way.

I have my own reasons for wanting to walk my nine year old home from school each day. It isn't because the media has brainwashed me or any of the other reasons put forth in the thread.

I think it is worth noting that many who advocate being looser with kids do that for the same reason that other parents who are maligned as fear-driven ninnies do what they do. They want to ensure the best chance for a happy, healthy future for their children. To turn around Baby_Balrog's really eloquent statement from above, these free range parents...
"are convinced that if they make the right choices (let the kids wander! let them play with fire! no more rubber mats!) that they will develop into better-adjusted adults."
posted by Cassford at 11:49 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


When you add to that dual-income families so the kids are at daycare and aftercare until 5:30 at night at least, there are simply no children around

To me, this honestly is the most significant driver in how children play these days.

I am a stay at home parent with one kid. She's fairly precocious, and I'd trust her to find her way to the playground down the street and not to get in too much trouble.

But the thing is, she'd be the _only_ kid there. Possibly for hours.
We live in a neighborhood with kids. I've seen them. They come to the park occasionally, sometimes a lot of them.

But more often than not, when I take her to the playground, especially during work hours, we are the only people there. We have literally spent entire afternoons at the neighborhood playground by ourselves.
On some occasions, we've driven to 3 different parks and not found a single kid to play with.

Sure, a lot of us got kicked outside to play, but the difference was, we weren't usually playing alone. There was a gang of kids, someone to run and get an adult if something went horribly wrong, more sets of eyes to keep an eye out for fast-moving cars or killer snakes, more kids to organize games or invent worlds.

So, do I put have my child in too many activities, sports, whatever? Probably, but if I didn't, there's a pretty big chance she could go a whole day without seeing another child. Which can't be healthy, either.
posted by madajb at 12:10 AM on March 21 [3 favorites]


There's a lot of selection bias going on here, considering that all the casualties of 'free range' parenting aren't alive to comment here.

One friend of mine was hit by a car and killed while crossing the road. Another was shot in a murder/suicide tragedy by his mother's ex. There were some deadly house fires and lots of bad car accidents (both things where safety standards have made significant improvements since then).

I can't recall any playground deaths being talked about at all, or any play-related injuries worse than broken arms and a couple concussions -- both injuries that friends' kids have had recently, so those are still risks.

I think partly we are just bad at assessing risk -- it wasn't very dangerous to let your kids roam free thirty or forty years ago even though it sounds risky, and conversely we are completely casual about actually dangerous things like driving cars or living sedentary lives.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:12 AM on March 21 [5 favorites]


Yeah, pompomtom, but so are so many Aussies - one of the highest proportions of urban dwellers of any country, and all that. Not many brown snakes in inner Sydney - I'd be more worried about funnelwebs. (But true, don't run through the long grass. It isn't a reason to avoid bushwalks or bike rides.)

Cassford, surely there's a middle ground between not wanting to be involved and micromanaging every minute. What is disturbing is the thought that we feel we ought to never leave kids to their own devices, for fear of legal or social consequences. I like walking and talking with my son on the way to school, but he needs some space to develop a private world of his own. He also doesn't need me watching his every move while he clocks up his 10,000 hours of becoming the world's greatest skateboarder or whatever.
posted by rory at 12:14 AM on March 21 [2 favorites]


Rory, I agree. That is part of what I was trying to say. I live in that middle ground, as do most pofd the parents I know. Maybe I'll think there is a big problem that needs a bunch of "You Are Doing It Wrong" articles in the Atlantic and elsewhere when my kids are in high school. But right now, from what I see in my kids' elementary school in a relatively affluent corner of an urban school district, the main challenges to positive growth and development do not include parental over-involvement and over-protectiveness. Maybe it is different in the suburbs, exurbs, other cities. Maybe my built-in biases are coloring my perceptions.

I think this has been raised in these kinds of discussions here before, but I sometimes wonder if the increase in protectiveness has a lot to do with the decreasing size of families. My grandmother lost two children before they made it to their teens. She had six more children who outlived her. I only have the two.
posted by Cassford at 7:39 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


conversely we are completely casual about actually dangerous things like driving cars

On the contrary -- we spend hundreds of dollars on giant plastic exoskeleta that we strap our kids into every time we take a 5-minute drive, and if our kids need to go in somebody else's car, that means either they have a spare giant plastic exoskeleton or we uninstall ours from our car and install it in theirs. It is kind of a pain. Our parents and grandparents would probably have found it ridiculous. And I'm one hundred percent OK with it.
posted by escabeche at 7:58 AM on March 21


But they would let me—and in fact sometimes would literally lock me and my brother out of the house to force us to—wander around outside in our yard for hours on end.

One place we lived, the two neigbor kids - brother and sister - were locked out of the house after breakfast and only let back in for meals until dark, every day, all summer. They used to come over to our house to use the bathroom*, and we'd always invite them to stay and play. Their stepmother didn't want them tracking dirt into the house. I felt so bad for them. Future archeologists will find layer after layer of all the green army men we lost in our mud pit and spculate on their religious significance. The brother was in love with my sister's pet hen, and would hunt worms for her all afternoon.

But damn, I got a lot out of it

I read last year that the neighbor boy was arrested for passing counterfeit bills to buy meth, and since it's a repeat offense he's going away for a while. I can't stop wondering if he'd had parents who put his need to use the bathroom above their clean floors, or if we'd stayed in that house one summer longer, if things might have turned out differently for him.

*apparently they weren't expressly forbidden from asking for special permission for a bathroom break, but they were given such a hard time about it that they were scared to. I heard her once, and I didn't blame them.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:09 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


As a free-range little girl and preteen I could have done without all the sexual harassment I was subjected to. The time a man cornered me on a bus to lean into me and breathe into my ear, the other time a different man stopped his car to expose himself to me while I was walking alone, the teenage boys who stopped to interrogate me ... then there was that really great time that some other man attempted to assault my sister while she and I were walking home from our school bus stop. There's a lot of negative stuff that can happen to children that's not captured by emergency room statistics. But I guess I have a lot of "grit" so it's all good, right? My friends in high school were so admiring of my independence and don't-mess-with-me attitude.
posted by stowaway at 10:13 AM on March 21 [6 favorites]


I should add that there's a heavy dose of sarcasm in the sentence, "But I guess I have a lot of "grit" so it's all good, right?" It definitely was not all good.
posted by stowaway at 10:14 AM on March 21


I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere else in the comments, so I'll just bring it up because I actually RTFA - The Land is not advocating completely free-range playground / time for these kids FWIW - there are apparently well-trained adult "play monitors" there to step in if anything truly bad is going on - they touch on the issues of bullying and harassment within the article tbh.

So yes, they are advocating for a "third way" that is not "raised by wolves" or "helicopter parenting". I think if you can read past the clickbaity lede there's some value in the article within; questionably framed statistics notwithstanding.

personal anecdote: I was raised as a completely free-range kid throughout the 70s and early 80s (single parent family, mom worked 30 miles+ away) in the country and it didn't do much for me socially or developmentally, although to be clear I also didn't have the benefit of a suburban lifestyle to help build my social skills; I lived on a 40 acre farm as an only child so essentially grew up alone or bullied by the neighbor's 5 older and similarly free-range boys when I was told to go there after school.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:25 AM on March 21


I would really like to see pretty much all of the documentary footage mentioned in that article, but they don't make it easy -- I may have missed it, but I didn't see any titles. Does anyone happen to have more info on those?
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 11:24 AM on March 21


Does anyone happen to have more info on those?

This might be it:
In the summer of 1975 John Marshall and Roger Hart documented the outdoor play activities of the children in a small Vermont town. Roger had just completed his dissertation from Clark University on the geography of children. John's 13 hours of 16mm footage comprised part of his detailed research on children's outdoor lives, studying the role of play in children's psychological development as well as its relationship to their understanding of nature and their surroundings. The long takes of children completely absorbed in their own private worlds provide a rare document of the complexity, creativity, and spontaneity of children at play.

A year after shooting, Roger received an invitation from the BBC to make a film on children's creative activity outdoors. John's footage of the children's imaginative play constituted more than half of the program Play and Place: Transforming Environments produced for the Open University division of the BBC. On the day of broadcast it was selected as the "Pick of the Day" by The London Times, and the director of the BBC called the film's producer from his vacation to congratulate him on the remarkably moving footage of children's free play.
More on Play and Place (.pdf).
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:37 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


As a free-range little girl and preteen I could have done without all the sexual harassment I was subjected to.
Stowaway, your comment hit so much home with me.... Apparently I grew up in a sheltered state, even though I was "free range" and allowed to wander pretty much anywhere my legs or bicycle could take me, as long as I was home before the streetlights came on. I was lucky that I'd never encountered a "stranger with candy" as a kid, and my only negative encounters with adults were those who yelled at me and my friends at perceived misbehavior (we were making too much noise, riding our bikes on their lawn, etc.). It wasn't until I was a young teen that I encountered the "scary" side of random adults (always a man in my experience)....especially once my best friend started "developing" at age 11 and required a C-cup when the rest of us were wearing undershirts or training bras. True story: one summer day she and I (we were both 13 at the time) were walking to the drugstore on 8 Mile Road (just two blocks from her house) to get some pop, and this man approached us and introduced himself as a professional photographer for Playboy and handed her a card with his phone number on it, asking her to call him because she had the potential to be a model. Scared the bejeezus out of me. When I mentioned it to my Mom, she told me of some instances in her youth, getting flashed by men and such while walking home from school and not understanding why or what they were doing....(she was a sheltered Catholic school girl in 1940s Detroit).
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:14 PM on March 21


As a free-range little girl and preteen I could have done without all the sexual harassment I was subjected to.

Yes, there is also that.

I wasn't feeling up to opening that can of worms (not just because it's not fun to talk about but because I don't relish being accused of sensationalism) but since it's open - an unsupervised school playground with lots of dark corners is where I was beaten and sexually assaulted at the age of five by a group of older boys. The lack of adult supervision not only allowed it to happen, it gave the school administration plausible deniability that it had happened on their watch. The doctors could date the injuries, but without an adult eyewitness the case wasn't strong enough.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:55 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


I am so sorry that happened to you. I know it's a hot button topic to bring up - but if we're discussing why Americans, as a culture, don't let their kids wander as they used to, I think it's important to acknowledge that all that unsupervised time was not that great for plenty of kids. I did and do enjoy my alone time, but there's a middle ground to be had. It's impossible to defend against all possible harms, but you can't fault parents for wanting their kids to have better childhood experiences than they had themselves.
posted by stowaway at 1:51 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Great article. This reminds me more of my father's childhood than mine, when he and the other kids basically owned the huge local park and did as they pleased. Kids got scraped up, but no one was maimed or died.
posted by homunculus at 3:16 PM on March 21


I'm sorry to hear that happened to you, The Underpants Monster.

One place we lived, the two neigbor kids - brother and sister - were locked out of the house after breakfast and only let back in for meals until dark, every day, all summer. They used to come over to our house to use the bathroom*, and we'd always invite them to stay and play.

Eh, see, we weren't allowed to leave the yard for the most part, so that wouldn't have been our deal. We got to go in to go to the bathroom. I wasn't thrilled to be made to go outside, but it wasn't really my parents being neglectful; it was them not wanting us to sit inside all day. I get it now, even though I thought it was stupid at the time.
posted by limeonaire at 4:09 PM on March 21


-This. I helped a lost little boy find his mom at the park last weekend. If it had been a little girl I would've had to find someone else to help her, or just not do anything, because ugh what is that creeper pedo doing with that little girl. And the mom reacted more with suspicion than with gratitude or relief when we found her.

For the record, if my girl ever needs help, whether it be a hand getting up after a fall or if she's truly lost, please just help.

I will be nothing but grateful.
posted by madajb at 10:57 PM on March 21 [4 favorites]


One Second Before Awakening -- in addition to the print material (mentioned above) that went along with Roger Hart's project for the Open University, a bit more on Hart's research:

* Childhood revisited: Through longitudinal research, Roger Hart seeks to inform debate on the changing nature of childhood play.

* Presentation: "Creating Playspaces by and for Children"

* Looks like you could reach him here if you want to ask him about the footage.

Fascinating topic. The overstructuring of children's space, time, and emotional lives leaves so little room for self-driven discovery.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:15 PM on March 22 [3 favorites]


Many thanks for your help, MonkeyToes! I can't wait to dig into this stuff. I'd love to put together a screening of that documentary you linked. I may very well email the man himself!
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 10:21 AM on March 24


For example, beginning in 2011, Swanson Primary School in New Zealand submitted itself to a university experiment and agreed to suspend all playground rules, allowing the kids to run, climb trees, slide down a muddy hill, jump off swings, and play in a “loose-parts pit” that was like a mini adventure playground. The teachers feared chaos, but in fact what they got was less naughtiness and bullying—because the kids were too busy and engaged to want to cause trouble, the principal said.
When one New Zealand school tossed its playground rules and let students risk injury, the results were surprising
posted by homunculus at 6:35 PM on March 31


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