The Incredible Shrinking World
June 15, 2007 6:28 AM   Subscribe

The great-grandfather could walk six miles to go fishing; the grandfather could walk a mile to go to the woods; the son can't go more than 300 yards from his house. How children lost the right to roam, including a map illustrating the point.
posted by JDHarper (95 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
That's an interesting article but I wish it had more meat. So, kids don't travel around like they used to, and this has a negative effect on them, and...........what?
posted by ashbury at 6:38 AM on June 15, 2007

DAMN KIDS, GET OFF MY LAWN....wait a minute, where are all the kids?
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:42 AM on June 15, 2007 [5 favorites]

While I'm sympathetic to the points raised, the article doesn't really address why this might be, which makes it virtually impossible to consider doing anything about it. Through use of the passive voice the author seems to want to suggest that this restriction on kids is arbitrary and capricious, but I suspect that it's anything but that. Even in the one sentence where the article addresses the increased number of cars on the roads, the quote is used to suggest that because families have more cars, children are more likely to be driven around, rather than questioning whether the world where walking six miles to go fishing has been fundamentally changed because there are (100%, 200%, 300% ???) more cars on the road.
posted by OmieWise at 6:43 AM on June 15, 2007

I can't help thinking that the Daily Mail bears some responsibility for instilling the fears that keep children so close to home.
posted by edd at 6:47 AM on June 15, 2007 [15 favorites]

I noted that my daughter, after school, sits at computer and IMs friends and chats on phone etc...why? well, in suburbs, they often stay at home (we walked next door or down the block to be with pals), and thus "communicate" till say, weekends, when they can plan a play date. There is of course fears about what is out there but also it is the differece in suburban life versus city dwelling and the many activities (for better or worse) that can be had indoors--ie, tv, computers, films.

The father? well my dad fished every weekend and where he went is now no longer available: condos built up around the lake and it is now private property. But then I am a father now and I get out into the woods, set aside by my town, and walk nearly every day for a few miles. My son runs some 5 plus miles every short: it can still be done!
posted by Postroad at 6:48 AM on June 15, 2007

It's the Daily Mail, ashbury - it doesn't have to make sense!

(The Mail, famously read by the wives of the people who run the country, is always the first to trumpet a new and terrible danger to the Children Of Great Britain. The Mail has a special affection for paedophiles, who apparently run wild like packs of rabid dogs in the post-moral-apocalypse world of modern England.)
posted by dansdata at 6:49 AM on June 15, 2007

There is actually somewhat of a debate in the UK about "paranoid parenting" and whether it's a good or bad thing. this times-select article talked about it in relation to a girl kidnapped out of a hotel room that her parents had left her in for an hour while on vacation.

I think part of the problem is that even if some parents let their kids wander around, there wouldn't be any other kids to play with because all the other parents didn't allow it.

I know it's kind of blasphemous, but with cellphones these days kids could really roam a lot more freely, and their parents could just call them when it's time for dinner or whatever.
posted by delmoi at 6:52 AM on June 15, 2007

We continuously trade the subtle, fine things in life for a world with padded handrails. Go outside on a cloudless night and you will now find the stars countable. But, golly, I can damn near perform open heart surgery, even when planted between the two lampposts that are only about thirty meters apart. This has reduced crime by some tiny amount, or so I'm told. A child is in more danger from relatives and family friends, but let's make the kid into an agoraphobe, anyway, because nothing is more real than the grim spectre of sodomy, embodied by a man in a black trenchcoat, leaning out of a van bearing the words "FREE CANDY." If a sip of wine passes a child's lips before age twenty-one, it's a horrific crime and someone has been hurt; it's perfectly okay to send an eighteen year old to a foreign land to get those same lips, and mouth, and entire jaw shot away with a bullet.

We're raising a nation of fearful drones, incapable of thinking for themselves, unable to judge risk.
posted by adipocere at 6:56 AM on June 15, 2007 [15 favorites]

It is interesting... I've thought about this quite a lot.

I was a serial roamer as a kid in the '70s, and I really do feel that I would be less brave, less confident, less curious and investigative, and... just... a lot more frustrated if my freedom had been as curtailed as it is for most children today. The delicious autonomy I had seems like an impossible dream now.

I had my bike, and I went everywhere... There was traffic, but somehow, it seems like kids were accorded a bit more faith in their skills to negotiate that type of thing back then... and there weren't TV programs about baby rapists on the news every day. It seems like the times were more of a holdover from the '50s a-car-and-a-dream post-war rambling ethos. Parents felt like kids spending the day outside getting vigorous exercise and taking on the world with their own set of (what was still, then, fairly relatively expensive) wheels was a great thing.
posted by taz at 6:56 AM on June 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

My parents were annoyed when I stayed in. Thank God.

We used to bike all over the place. Only limit was the hills and whether you were willing to bike back, since Mom certainly wasn't going to pick you up and there were no cellphones.

OTOH, it probably wasn't a hot idea to climb through the storm sewers. But it was SO cool.
posted by smackfu at 6:58 AM on June 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

because there are (100%, 200%, 300% ???) more cars on the road.

And no fucking sidewalks.

That and paranoid parents -- most are too paranoid -- are keeping the kiddies safe at home playing games with Uncle Roy rather than out having fun, exercising, and learning how to socialize.
posted by pracowity at 7:01 AM on June 15, 2007

A friend points me to a Schneier link.
posted by edd at 7:01 AM on June 15, 2007

I should note that if we were out of screaming distance for "Scootttttttttt" at dinner time, there was hell to pay. But my mom could get a good half mile range out of that.
posted by smackfu at 7:01 AM on June 15, 2007

It's all because of cars. People tell those lies to themselves that kids aren't safe out there because of predators. Ha, what a joke. People are so invested in car culture that they are afraid to look at the truth; that it is literally killing them. Pollution and noise. Oil spills. War. The death of cities and neighborhoods all across America. Road rage? WTF? Wake up, people.
We need to take back the streets. KILL YOUR CAR.

Well you roll on roads,
over fresh green grass,
cause your lorry load's
pumping petrol gas.
You can make them long,
and you can make them wide,
but they just go on and on,
and it seems you can't get off.

Where do the children play?
posted by bitslayer at 7:01 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think it's all about perceived risk.

Let's say you have a 1 in 100,000 per year chance of being killed in a traffic accident. Let's argue that that hasn't changed much.

In great-grand parents' time, the parents would get their news from a circle of friends and family primarily. A thousand people, for sake of argument. So, on average, one kid the family and friends know gets run down by horses every hundred years. That doesn't sound like such a bad risk.

In grandparents' time, they get their news from the local paper, a coverage of say 100k people. Now they hear about 1 or 2 kids dying per year.

Our parents got news from the local TV coverage, with a bit of national if it was spectacular. Say a million people. Now, ten kids die a year. Ten kids, that's one every month. Now it starts to stick in moms' and dads' heads that things are dangerous, because that kid died just the other week.

We get news nationally almost the same way our parents got local news. Plus, the CNNs of the world, knowing what sells eyeballs to to advertizers, emphasise and prolong reportage of horrific accidents and crimes. Now parents' alarm bells are going off full time. There's always a horrible and extreme example on the news of what happens to kids if their parents aren't watching.

The important thing here is that the risk level hasn't changed, just the reportage of accidents. Now, I have no idea if the risks are worse than they were in 1900, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were, in fact, quite a bit smaller. The statistics argue that this is so: crime statisics have fallen for a generation, cars are safer, kids are much more likely to reach adulthood than a generation ago.

Regardless, it's all about perceived risk. Our metal alarms are tiggered all the time, so now we're much more cautious.

Caution is a sensible strategy in a world where you only hear about a few thousand people, maybe even a few hundred thousand. It makes less sense when our "local neighbourhood" is 100 million. It's not the media's fault, it's that we, as individuals, don't have the mental or emotional tools to judge risk.
posted by bonehead at 7:04 AM on June 15, 2007 [24 favorites]

This was explored in more depth by Richard Louv in his book Last child in the Woods; reviewed in Salon.

Definitely a real issue; googling "children freedom roam" brings up a lot of hand-wringing over this issue, but it is mainly in the UK and Australia. I would guess it is at least as big a problem in the US; it has certainly been my experience that while I walked a mile to school as a six year old, everyone now drives their kids to school from even a couple of blocks away, with all of the attendent problems that traffic causes (including an increased risk of accidents).
posted by TedW at 7:16 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Is anyone else concerned with the complete lack of scale in that map? We're supposed to believe that Jack's circle has a radius of one mile, but that the distance from George's dot to Rother valley is six miles?

Even when reporting on how afraid we all are, they felt the need to exaggerate the effects of something from 6:1 to about 10:1
posted by Partial Law at 7:18 AM on June 15, 2007

I second the Last Child in the Woods recommendation. If you're at all curious about learning more about this topic, it's the book to read.
posted by Tehanu at 7:24 AM on June 15, 2007

I was just about to take a walk when I thought I would sit down and check mefi quickly first. But now I'm getting out the door, I swear.
posted by sy at 7:26 AM on June 15, 2007

The real problem is the lack of communication amongst neighbors, and the fact that most children live in households where both parents work. I swear my mom had a network of moms who all had their network of moms who all knew exactly where we were and what we were doing even if it was exploring the rail yard or the sewer. I cannot speak for the suburbs, but in the city we went to neighborhood schools, we played with the same kids we went to school with. I guess even today with school choice/busing, kids may not have that anymore.
posted by Gungho at 7:30 AM on June 15, 2007

How children lost the right to roam

Does this mean no more Family Circus cartoons in which Billy meanders all over the neighborhood leaving a dotted line?

That li'l scamp! He could've gone straight home but instead he walked around the birdbath three times!
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 7:35 AM on June 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

I used to wander around, barefoot on broken glass strewn sidewalks, at the high school campus next to my house. We did a lot of dumb, unsafe stuff.

My own kids don't do that. Am I a tyrant? No and it isn't for the reason you think I'm going to say. It isn't that I want to keep them safe, though I probably would put more restrictions on them than I had on me. It's that they don't seem interested. They barely go *outside* by themselves, let alone all over the neighborhood.

Some video games, some books, some things we just prefer to do inside. It all adds up to not much time outside. Outside is kinda boring.
posted by DU at 7:42 AM on June 15, 2007


"Billy" neighborhood map for the 21st century.
posted by Challahtronix at 7:44 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Luov book was the topic of this recent post.

I think the article uses a good, narrow focus (childhood free-roaming range) to point out some broader problems, but indeed only skims the surface. There is a lot going on with this story. Why are kids more restricted in the space they can make use of? It's all of the above.
-Perceived risk and our culture's obesssion with safety
-Planning and zoning: desiging places for car convenience rather than pedestrian comfort
-Workforce changes: almost everyone works, and fewer adults are at home in the afternoons. There was a degree of safety-net to wandering when any house nearby might contain a parent, usually a mom, at home most of the day. Now houses in residential neighborhoods are dark and empty between eight and six. Even if they were not actively supervising kids, I can remember a solid handful of situations where, in my wandering, we had to knock on someone's door (bike tire blowout, first aid requirement, we were just lost) and someone was there to help.
-Generational segregation: as above, grandma and grandpa used to live in neighborhood homes. Today they live in senior condos or assisted living, elsewhere.
-Preference for structured activities for children. IN one way, structured activities are a safe place to put kids while parents work, but they're also preferred because they generate a record of achievement which is supposed to be helpful in college and career. Competitiveness, basically.
-Indoor options. When I was a kid, there was just not that much to do indoors. Being forbidden to go outside was a punishment, for heaven's sake. Now, families have small media mutliplexes in their homes and access to enough entertaining content and communications channels to keep them halfway interested for several lifetimes.

Kids's freedoms highlight some important changes in our culture, and it would be very interesting to look at a more developed analysis of what they tell us. It also connects extremely well to dietary issues and childhood obesity. I'd like to read a more thorough piece working from this angle.

I walked to school all 12 years. When I went to high school, I was not eligible for the bus because I lived only 1.3 miles away from school. Anything 1.5 or less was considered walkable. So, I walked (or biked). Today, the same high school picks up students from the corner of my former street and even closer to the school. That change was in a school budget at some point and was voted on by the people of town. As were the zoning variances that allowed commercial strips with parking lots in front and no sidewalks, replacing the former street-front buildings with parking in back that encouraged downtown strolling. This isn't just happening to us; we're enabling it.
posted by Miko at 7:45 AM on June 15, 2007

Some friends and I were talking about this very same subject last week.

Basically, when I was growing up (I'm 36) in small-town Tennessee, during the summer I would leave my house about 7:30am and return about 7pm for dinner. During most of the day, I was completely unreachable, roaming with friends over a probably 10 square mile area. We might show up at someone's house for lunch, we might not.

A bicycle was indispensable, as we covered a lot of ground and rode everywhere.

Noone had cell phones, and our parents had only a vague idea of where we would be.

There were some rules, some boundaries, laid out ahead of time, and that was that. We were sternly warned about strangers, and made clear that if we were to go anywhere with a stranger then we would be the ones in trouble. Severe trouble.

Some of the stuff we did, looking back, was frighteningly dangerous. It's lucky our parents didn't know anything about it.

However, I am fully aware that I will not allow my child to have that sort of latitude, especially not at the age that I did. I am sure by the time he reaches that age, there will be some sort of ubiquitous GPS based star-trek-ish communication device, more sophisticated and passive than a standard cellphone.

Even though I logically understand the remote odds of "stranger danger", I can't emotionally divide myself from that chance. This is MY son we're talking about, and even a "remote" chance is something to be eradicated if possible.

But really, many of the worries are more pedestrian than guy in a black package van. Just simple injuries and lapses in judgement that could have far-reaching consequences.

Simply put, there is no way I would allow my son to disappear for 12 hours with no way of reaching him and only a vague idea of where he is "supposed" to be.

Sad but true. Of course, the only upside is that noone else's kids will have that freedom either, so they will never know what they are missing. But I will.


Sign O' the Times, indeed. (Thank you Prince)
posted by Ynoxas at 7:46 AM on June 15, 2007

I also agree with Miko and those above about indoor options being far greater.

If I had a TV with all my favorite shows Tivo'd, an Xbox 360, and an internet enabled PC at home when I was 10, I doubt very much I would have been playing stickball in the 99 degree sun.

Or maybe I would. Who knows. My son has those things now and still asks to go outside. Where we let him play in our yard with us no more than 50 feet away, if that.
posted by Ynoxas at 7:53 AM on June 15, 2007

My understanding is that children were statistically more likely to be victimized by pedophiles when I was a child in the seventies than they are today, but that for reasons that bonehead and others have listed the spectre of great danger now looms much larger in parents' minds. Including mine: try as I might to be sensible, if I allowed my eight-year-old daughter to walk five blocks to school I'd be worried all day whether she had gotten there safely.

The problem is that now there are no children on the streets, so sending your own out there seems even worse. So here's my proposal: neighbourhoods organize weekly "let the kids run free" sessions. An hour or two where all the kids go out to play, "call on" each other, and have fun wandering around just as we used to. If everyone's still too freaked out they can start by posting a few adults on the corners to keep an eye on things. If this works, let's gradually increase the length of these normality periods until the kids can roam freely just as we used to.

But as I write this, I realize: what if the kids don't want to? I remember reading about a certain type of monkey held in a famous zoo. In the wild these monkeys perform dizzying acrobatics, swooping from branch to branch. So the zoo build them a special enclosure with tree like structures built of wood or metal. The objective, for a reason that escapes me now, was to release these monkeys in the wild.

So they did. And the monkeys did go in the trees but hugged the trunks, apparently terrified to advance out onto the springy branches that the wild monkeys had no trouble navigating. They'd grown up on umbrella stands, and that was just fine for them, thank you.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:53 AM on June 15, 2007

I was talking to a friend on the phone a while ago. It was one of those horribly stilted conversations where every other sentence was a "No honey. Don't do that." directed at her children. She started going on to me about what a hard job it is to look after her children and how they need to be constantly supervised.

I asked her where she was, thinking maybe she had taken them to the park or a playground or something. She replied, "Oh, we're in the backyard." I was floored. Her children were in an ENCLOSED one acre area BUILT SOLELY FOR THEM. And yet they couldn't roam free in their own habitat.

I really really really really really do not like this whole trend of raising children as though they are orchids.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:57 AM on June 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

Here in Canada I notice the same thing going on with my friend's kids (we don't have kids).

I don't totally agree that this is caused by PCs and XBox and such. As kids we were well-stocked with old-fashioned distractions like meccano, lego, model trains, models, chemistry sets (---boom!---), electrical labs, etc. More than enough to keep any pale-skinned geeky kid in the basement, yet i still got out alot.

I think (hope) that's it's also a small town/large town thing. I grew up in a somewhat isolated city of about 140,000. I was able to go downtown by myself by bus when i was 8, by 10 we were "hiking" up to a mile away from the house, and by 12 the world was just about limitless when i was on my bike. I'd be gone all day, with a packed lunch. (Being 12 was heaven). And I think it really shaped my world and my willingness to explore it.

(I still try to do the odd 4 hour bike ramble, exploring new areas, when time permits)

Currently we live in Toronto (pop 4,000,000+). My friends' kids can't roam at will, they have "play dates" arranged by the parents, ffs. I hope the small-town kids still have more freedom than us paranoid city dwellers.
posted by Artful Codger at 8:02 AM on June 15, 2007

When I was in second grade, I used to walk to school with my third-grade sister -- a distance of about two miles. When I was nine, I used to get on the bus and go downtown all by myself. I remember going all by myself to see the Lippizan stallions downtown, buying my ticket and bus fare with my allowance. Was it less dangerous then? No, of course not. My friends and I were just not treated like breakable little glass children. And also, we were restricted in how much television we were allowed to watch; our parents preferred that we spend our time doing something a little more active.

It makes me very sad now that I have a friend whose kid has never been allowed to walk alone to his friend's house -- a distance of half a block. Another friend has tried to get other parents to let their kids walk home from school with his daughter, through a very quiet residential area full of expensive homes. From the response of the parents, you would have thought he was asking them to make their way home through war-torn Baghdad.
posted by OolooKitty at 8:04 AM on June 15, 2007

Let's say you have a 1 in 100,000 per year chance of being killed in a traffic accident. Let's argue that that hasn't changed much.

I realize that "let's say" places this squarely in the realm of conjecture for argument's sake, but I think I should point out regardless that this figure WAY mangles reality. In the US, at least, our National Safety Council rates your odds of dying in a car accident this year -- not ever ever, but within the next 365 days -- at 1 in 6500. An American's liftetime probability of dying in a car accident is 1 in 83; I would imagine that someone from the UK has similar odds.

(A trip to teh googles should direct you to an article in Reason called "Don't Be Terrorized" [August 11, 2006], yielding all these fun facts and more.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:13 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Preference for structured activities for children. IN one way, structured activities are a safe place to put kids while parents work, but they're also preferred because they generate a record of achievement which is supposed to be helpful in college and career.

That's an interesting point, Miko.

Part of my job is training students (just saying goodbye to two today, in fact). To be useful in my lab, I need an independent head on their shoulders. It can take months for me to sort out the constant instruction-seeking behaviour some student's have. Some never get it. For some of them, too many of them, working with me is the first unstructured experience they've really had, the first time they get to set their own priorities. Sometimes I think that time management is the most important thing I can teach them.

They all come expecting a structured work term and are frequently surprised when we discuss their research plan. Some are baffled by the freedom to choose, and those I end up treating as techs. Too few take to it enthusiastically. Most you have to sneak independence upon, and even then they're too suspicious of their own judgement.
posted by bonehead at 8:15 AM on June 15, 2007 [4 favorites]

When I was child, yes, I wandered for miles away from home on a bicycle, unreachable for hours at a time at 10 years old.

Had I parented my own child that way, my ex-wife would have had child protective services and police at my door for child neglect. Very possibly, some over-enthusiastic public "protector" might have agreed with her. So it's not entirely a question of what a parent wants -- society's expectations of what's reasonable parenting contribute to this.
posted by tyllwin at 8:15 AM on June 15, 2007

I roamed all over the place, disappearing until sundown. Woods, creeks, railroad tracks, storm drains. I would bike to a friends house that was across town. Built forts and treehouses. Dirt-clod fights. Got cut, scraped, dislocated a hip once. Lucky perhaps, but all my friends survived too.

My neighbor's kids don't leave the front yard. They bounce a basketball in the driveway all day.

I remember reading an article about the collapse of the bicycle business. It noted that kids of today don't get bikes - they get scooters. That aren't useful for going farther than the end of the driveway.

This leads to kids that haven't had an unsupervised moment in their lives, until they hit college. And get into trouble.
posted by bitmage at 8:16 AM on June 15, 2007

I was a latch-key-kid. Which, come summertime, is about as close to being raised by wolves as you can get. I had a three or four mile roaming area filled with and endless maze of suburban streets parks, fields, woods and a lake (it was man made and it cost a dollar to swim in it, which at that time was like who's going to blow a whole dollar just to go swimming. A dollar then could buy enough penny candy to feed a whole family of latch-key-kids for a week). No one ever told me to be careful and I never ever ever was. This of course resulted in several near death experiences but oddly enough not a single actual injury. Fast foward to me present day, sitting in My urban environment thinking of producing children of my own knowing that my kids will not know this level of independance. The world today is way more dangerous.... Isn't it?
posted by Wonderwoman at 8:17 AM on June 15, 2007

Another change since I was a kid is the level of consequences awaiting a child who makes a mistake. I played with firecrackers, had rubber-bullet gun battles in the tunnels of the local mall, and several of my friends made flashpowder bombs.

Getting caught for this when I was a kid would have resulted in a stern talking-to by the officer and possibly being escorted home. (a chilling fate, considering Mom's reaction). Now it's zero-tolerance world, and these mistakes are going to lead to arrests, expulsions, and problems that will follow the kid for the rest of their lives.

No wonder they want to stay in and play Xbox...
posted by bitmage at 8:23 AM on June 15, 2007

kittens for breakdfast, 1 in 5600 is about 18 in 100k. Change my numbers by an order of magnitude then. It doesn't change my argument very much.
posted by bonehead at 8:29 AM on June 15, 2007

We're raising a nation of fearful drones, incapable of thinking for themselves, unable to judge risk.

You mean the parents.

Nevertheless, there have been numerous incidents of guys pulling up to kids and asking if they want a ride in our area. If I caught one of those guys trying that with my kid I would kill him with my bare hands. That and the asswipes who speed down our residential street at 40 mph. Half of these bozos are soccer moms to boot. Add to that the fact that if your kid is out, he is going to be basically the only one so if there is a sicko out there it is your kid they will see. There is no longer any safety in being lost in the crowd. The crowd is in the back yards, not on the streets. So, unfortunately, at eight years old my kids were not allowed very far from home. They did like visiting my old hometown in the midwest where they have not had any incidents with weirdos driving up to kids, and the traffic is much, much slower, so we let them roam a half mile or so, and it would probably be farther but they didn't really know the area.
posted by caddis at 8:35 AM on June 15, 2007

I get winded walking to my car.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:41 AM on June 15, 2007

What is nice about parents' neighborhood - where I grew up - is that kids are playing outside, all the time, and not necessarily 50 yards away from their house. The whole neighborhood is just one giant loop and anytime I come to see my parents on a weekend or a weekday when school's out, I see a whole pack of kids, probably ranging in age from 6 to 10 on their bikes, roaming around the neighborhood. We did that too; my parents would kick us out after dinner during the summer and we'd stay out after dark playing flashlight tag.

It is nice to see the kids playing like that. I live in the city and when I do see kids playing outside, they're either right in front of their own house or they're at a park with obvious parental/nanny figures supervising. (Not that I blame parents of city kids; I'm not sure I'd let a 10-year-old wander around the neighborhood I live in now).
posted by sutel at 8:42 AM on June 15, 2007

Some video games, some books, some things we just prefer to do inside. It all adds up to not much time outside. Outside is kinda boring.

I waited an entire thread for someone to notice this, but it never happened. All I can say is my God, man, has your imagination been so stilted by your media that outside is "boring," or is your environment that circumscribed? How in the hell can sitting in front of a screen for hours on end even compare?

I think people like you share at least as much of the blame for the current downward trajectory of the state of our environment as the people actively causing it. After all, what's going to get done about fixing up nature if no one has any stake in it?

What a shame.

More on topic, bitslayer has it, in my opinion. A secondary characteristic of the car having become as important as it is is that, of course, everything is more spread out. It would make a lot more sense for kids to wander about the neighborhood on the weekends and maybe stop by the deli in town for lunch when they got hungry if the deli in town weren't a 15 minute drive away. Who wants to walk to the deli on a high-volume, 40 mph thoroughfare with no sidewalks?
posted by invitapriore at 8:43 AM on June 15, 2007

I think this problem also has a lot to do with how people cope with death now as opposed to two generations ago.

Then, death was real, and people were commonly exposed to it. The death of a child was a tragedy but not an uncommon one. Adults aged and died in the presence of their families. Funerals were often community gatherings.

Now, we see death on television and in movies, usually in the context of extreme violence. Child and infant death rates have plummeted, and our old people are shipped off to homes to die relatively out of sight. Thus in some ways death seems more frightening and unnatural than it did to our great-grandparents, and people drive themselves and their children crazy avoiding even the most remote threat of it. We fetishize the individuality of our children, whereas people a hundred years ago simply had as many of them as possible and hoped that most of them would make it to adulthood.
posted by hermitosis at 8:49 AM on June 15, 2007

"How in the hell can sitting in front of a screen for hours on end even compare?"

Nature is over-rated. It's got no air conditioning. It's dirty. It's messy. Staying inside playing video games is a lot more fun than being outside.

It's all a matter of perspective, you young whippersnappers.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:54 AM on June 15, 2007

invitapriore: easy there fella, I don't think he meant anything by it.

Plus, even when I was a free-range child, there were times we were crushed by almost unbearable boredom. Even for kids, there are times that 99 degrees, 99% humidity, and not a cloud in the sky can make you fatigued.

An Xbox360 or an internet PC would have been a miraculous gift from the heavens.

One kid had an Atari 2600 and we, literally, wore the joysticks out. But you can only take so much Combat and Pitfall.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:58 AM on June 15, 2007

We were just talking about this kind of thing at work yesterday. Apparently if you don't pick your kid up promptly from school, they call the police. When I was a kid, they just locked the doors and said good luck.
posted by smackfu at 9:05 AM on June 15, 2007

kittens for breakdfast, 1 in 5600 is about 18 in 100k. Change my numbers by an order of magnitude then. It doesn't change my argument very much.

Indeed it doesn't (your argument, incidentally, being one I agree with); I knew I was veering slightly off-topic by going there, but I thought it should be pointed out. Especially in light of the fact that "wandering" kids -- on bikes, on foot, on skateboards even -- are statistically much safer than are mom and dad, driving home from a day's work.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:05 AM on June 15, 2007

Slight derail - funny but true:

My little brother's favourite toy was his slingshot. One year he and his friends got their hands on some .22 cal blanks, used in nail-set guns. They discovered that if you fire one out of a slingshot against a brick wall, it goes off Bang!

So they're doing this against the neighbourhood public school, which was somewhat isolated. Neighbours report gunshots.

What happened then: cops observe what's going on, confront my brother, trip to parents house with stern warning, my brother gets grounded

What would happen now:

My brother's now in the Cdn Armed Forces, heh.

posted by Artful Codger at 9:06 AM on June 15, 2007

I approve of this trend wholeheartedly. The youth today are untrustworthy and dangerous, and any child you see on the street could be on drugs or carrying a weapon. I feel much safer knowing that the children are inside and under supervision, where they can't threaten or interfere with law-abiding, productive citizens such as myself.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:07 AM on June 15, 2007

sorry that was supposed to read:

What would happen now: < gulp > ...
posted by Artful Codger at 9:08 AM on June 15, 2007

News at 11 - Some parts of the world are becoming more urban, some are becoming more rural!
posted by Pollomacho at 9:11 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

It can take months for me to sort out the constant instruction-seeking behaviour some students have

I agree -- that's one of the hardest things about working with younger people (I do too). I never quite connected it with their degree of structure and lack of independence, but I think you make a strong argument. Certainly, my wanderings taught me a lot of self-sufficiency, initiative, creativity and problem-solving.

invitapriore, I had a similar reaction that it is just sad to think outside is boring and inside more interesting. Though I agree with Ynoxas a bit (I can remember very boring times, and I too wore out the Atari in my friend's green-carpeted basement), I can't imagine trading my childhood experiences for those of today, which seem prisonlike and stultifying. Part of it, though, might have to do with where you grow up. I grew up in a mid-sized town with a downtown offering plenty to get up to, on the bank of a river, with some handy parks and vacant lots and abandoned houses and woods. There was public transportation to the mall and to the city, and the beach was a 10-mile bike ride away. By 12 my best friend and I were riding to the beach for the day at least once a week. The town was densely settled and the neighborhood was full of kids my age. We used to hang out on the street for hours in the warmer months - playing keepaway or frisbee or football or foursquare, flirting, laughing, and being cool (or trying to) away from adult judgement. My little brother was in the woods building heart-dropping bicycle jumps with his friends and lighting strings of Black Cats. The more I think about it, our interaction with the concrete world was incredibly good (I still ride my bike to the beach; it obviously set the habit!) but the social aspects of free-ranging were the best part. The world was ours to explore, joking and smart-assing the whole way, and I can't imagine anything more exciting.
posted by Miko at 9:12 AM on June 15, 2007

FoB, there is the minority opinion, which I have been known to endorse, that teenage males should be sealed in a wooden cask (oak, by preference) at age 13, and released only after thier eighteenth birthday. Their only comminication, feeding, to occur through the bung hole.
posted by bonehead at 9:16 AM on June 15, 2007

Also, hermitosis is right on the money I think.

Regarding individuality of children, I remember my grandfather saying that his father would sometimes loose track of which boy was which (out of 13 children, 11 boys). My great-grandfather then had about 25 grandchildren, and probably at least 30 great-grandchildren.

Compare to my family, where my wife and I are both only children, and our son is the only grandchild.

Talk about spoiled. Jesus Christ. It's unbelievable. I think my son owns now at 3 years old more toys than I owned cumulatively through my childhood.

But, in his rarity comes his preciousness. Of course our parents are hyper-actively protective of him, he's all they've got. And we've made it clear it's unlikely we'll ever have more.

And those of you mentioning police reaction are completely correct. There were a few times I was doing something foolish, that I knew to be foolish, that I was told "knock it off" by a cop, and I did, and that was that. My son would be taken to jail for what we were given "stern words" for.

on preview Pollomacho: It actually has little to do with urban vs. rural. I live in a rural community now (smaller than what I grew up in) and it is exactly the same. Parents are just as terrified, if not more so.

Wait a second... something alluded to here a few times... could the changing demographics be a part of this? I mean, few people have 12 kids anymore. Hell, few have 4 anymore.

Even though I was an only, most of my friends had a sibling or 3.

Could the (perceived?) propensity towards smaller and smaller children populations contribute to this sense that it is more dangerous outside?
posted by Ynoxas at 9:17 AM on June 15, 2007

Could the (perceived?) propensity towards smaller and smaller children populations contribute to this sense that it is more dangerous outside?

I doubt it. One of the strongest negative correlations in the OECD stats is between education for women and family size. The theory is that when women have more economic options, by way of being better educated, families get delayed and thus shrink. Kid are also much more expensive to raise, a net negative, in a city, than on a farm, where they're free labour.
posted by bonehead at 9:23 AM on June 15, 2007

Most of the places I roamed as a kid are now housing developments.
posted by stbalbach at 9:26 AM on June 15, 2007

bonehead: I think you're answering the inverse of my question.

What I'm positing is, since family size overall is shrinking, could that absence of "children everywhere" outside lead observers (i.e. other parents) to believe it is more dangerous outside?

In other words, a 50 house subdivision in 1977 would have probably 100 kids playing outside. In 2007, there might be 40 kids, and only 10 of them are allowed outside.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:46 AM on June 15, 2007

You're right. Sorry Ynoxas. I had your thought backwards.

I've always thought of this as the "no scratch kid" theory myself, and I think it has some weight.

As the oldest child, my parents claim that I was the scratch kid, the one who got experimented on. I was raised by scientists (only one mad) though.
posted by bonehead at 9:59 AM on June 15, 2007

A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for.
posted by LordSludge at 10:02 AM on June 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

the thing that i keep coming to is that these kids are growing up without getting any scars. if you aren't learning to pick yourself off and rub the dirt out of a scrape and move on. you're missing a hell of a lot in order to be a functioning human.

i've worked with adults with cerebral palsy for years and years. one of the things i learned from that, is that they are just as smart as anyone else (most of them at least), but appeared to be developmentally delayed because everyone just assumed from birth they were dumb. they never learned anything cause no one ever let them fuck up. of course that's an extreme example and just off the top of my head, but i think this generation is going to be missing alot of the tools and relying on gadgets to make up for it. kids never learning to figure out how to navigate a town on a bike will have the gps later in life. if i took the time i could think of more along those lines, but on some level we're creating a world of disabled adults.
posted by andywolf at 10:04 AM on June 15, 2007

I can't decide if I'm more sick of "Kids these days!" hand-wringing news spots about emo, drugs, and the jazz, or "Parents these days!" hand-wringing news spots about over-feeding, over-protectiveness, and spoiling.
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:57 AM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

any child you see on the street could be on drugs or carrying a weapon.

In all honestly, some suburban communities will call the police on someone they see walking along side the road (again, no sidewalks). People not driving are inherently suspicious these days, and must be up to no good.
posted by triolus at 11:02 AM on June 15, 2007

hermitosis and adipocere have some very strong points.

Death is ignored in our culture as much as possible. I can't help to think there is some connection with our worship of youth. In earlier times, especially Baby Boomer generation and before, a lot of health care happened at home and the extended family was more involved. Kids were exposed to the dead and dying earlier and more frequently. You would accompany because that's what was going on. There seems to be more of a tendency to keep children away from hospitals or to equivocate about the condition of family and friends. All of this makes death more frightening and decreases our own ability to accept it with grace. And when I say 'our' I mean parents and children.

We are also poor at evaluating risk. I don't think many see the other side of the equation. It's not just the time driving him to school vs. the risk of a predator snatching him or getting hit in a car accident. That's pretty simple and few parents wouldn't invest the time to drive. But there are other losses as well, the independence, the opportunity to socialize for brief periods away from supervision, being outside, etc. The risk though, looms so large in the mind that the rationalization becomes well, the child will pick up that minute boost of confidence some other way, or he can enjoy being outside at soccer practice, or he can socialize at recess, but as more and more opportunities for roaming are lost they don't get made up. What happens instead is more time is spent scheduled and under supervision. That kind of time also has its psychological effect, not all of them negative, but the balance is lost.

Another part of it is we judge the narrative by the conclusion. That's fine for fiction, but stupid for real life. So many blame themselves for not being able to know the future. You can't evaluate a decision by how it turned out, there are variables out there you know nothing of. Randomness can not be eliminated. Decisions are best judged by looking at what the person knew at the time they made their decision. Often when someone makes a recommendation to be cautious it includes the phrase, "How would you feel if...", as in "How would you feel if your child got hit by a truck trying to cross the road and was looking at 50+ years of quadriplegia? Would you feel you had been a responsible parent?". Another phrase used to the same end is "If this [protective measure] will save the life of one child, then [some sacrifice] will be worth it.". Maybe, but maybe not. You can justify anything with that kind of logic if nothing can be weighed in relation to a life.

Yes, if parents were to loosen the reins on their children there would be more child deaths from accident or abduction, and that's important to acknowledge. But the number would be less than many fear and the lives of children as a whole would be richer.

"There is no such thing as life without bloodshed. The notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is really a dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous."
Cormac McCarthy - Interview 1992

And on a side note, did anyone else as a child hate supervised play? Sure parents were at the playground, generally within earshot at someone's house and knew where we were most of the rest of the time, but it seems like few kids ever get away now. Always having supervision and being told "now is play time, go have fun" would kill spontaneity for me and that's a big part of fun. I think there's a difference between being involved in a child's life and always being present.
posted by BigSky at 11:43 AM on June 15, 2007

I live in a mildly tough section of a large Eastern city. The kids roam all over the streets all day long and well into the evening when they're not in school. They're on foot and on bikes (one of the bikes was mine, once, one of the downsides of free-roaming kids is they climb in and out of your yard and take a creative attitude toward other people's possessions). This is good in some ways and bad in others, because I live in a neighborhood where getting into dealing, theft, and violence is common.

I raised my own (suburban, back then) kid to be moderately independent--she hung out with the neighbor kids, took the school bus in elementary and middle school, took the train to the city several times a week starting in middle school, often walked a mile to high school, and took plane trips across the country. I had to understand statistics and ignore the effect of the media to bring myself to do that, though, and it was pretty darn hard even though I'm an independent-minded coot.
posted by Peach at 11:49 AM on June 15, 2007

I asked her where she was, thinking maybe she had taken them to the park or a playground or something. She replied, "Oh, we're in the backyard." I was floored. Her children were in an ENCLOSED one acre area BUILT SOLELY FOR THEM. And yet they couldn't roam free in their own habitat.

I'm with you on this, even as I am committing the same crime in my own backyard with my 22-month-olds. Mind you, the areas that are off-limits are limited to occasional bits of dog poop and a pile of spider-infested stuff that I need to throw out, but you're still absolutely right, and I now realize that when I get back from vacation next week, I need to remove the few items of genuine harm and stop worrying about the dirt, the bugs, and the mud.

Of course, I'd better figure out a good way to clean off the mud before they track it all around the do you feel about parents who hose their kids down with ice-cold water? Heh.
posted by davejay at 11:57 AM on June 15, 2007

Oh, also: I used to roam freely after a certain age, but my mother still reminds me of the time my older sisters were watching me, and then forgot to; I managed to ride my big wheel (I was between 2-4 somewhere) two blocks away (crossing streets) to the schoolyard, and was happily playing on the swings by myself.

Did you know they now make a cell phone for kids, that only has a few numbers, and allows you to track their current position on a website?

I wonder how much of the problem is "I'm worried about what will happen to my kids" and how much is "I'm worried about what will happen to me if something happens to my kids when I let them roam"?
posted by davejay at 11:59 AM on June 15, 2007

One of the first things out of my mouth when I moved to NYC 3 years ago was "where'd all these damned kids come from?". The park by my house will usually be packed with kids on a nice saturday afternoon. Granted, I doubt any of them live very far, but they are outside, and for the most part unsupervised. It's a stark contrast from my hometown of Seattle, a supposedly "safer" place, where kids are rarely seen outside of supervised settings, and the parks are woefully underused.

Only once have I seen a kid that looked TOO young to be riding the subway alone, but 9-11 year olds arent a completely uncommon sight during the immediate after school hours.

The coolest thing I've seen in a while was a pack of skate-rats, looking to be between the ages of 8 and 12, riding down the middle of the street in the Lower East Side, full speed, traffic be damned. I was horrified, amazed, and slightly jealous.

Also the kids in this city dress better than I do, which ticks me off.
posted by billyfleetwood at 12:06 PM on June 15, 2007

"I'm worried about what will happen to me if something happens to my kids when I let them roam"?

Interesting point. Everyone knew I had an overprotective mom - a lot of things the other kids did I stayed out of. But what I knew as an overprotective mother would be considered reckless child endangerment today.

BTW Ynoxas, "I was a free-range child" is a great quote. No veal pen for us...
posted by bitmage at 12:13 PM on June 15, 2007

I let my child roam pretty freely. I figure there was already a kid-eating cannibal in my town and what are the chances of that happening again?
posted by Biblio at 12:33 PM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Daily Mail: Scaring you into staying inside, and then scaring you about staying inside.

I was allowed to roam in my NW Houston neighborhood starting at about 6 years old, with boundaries. Eventually, those boundaries were lifted or expanded, until they included everywhere I might find it worthwhile to walk (or bike) to anyway. I had a PC and video games, but we still spent most of our time hanging out, outside, just walking the streets, checking stuff out, and figuring out what we wanted to do.

It turned out that a lot of what we wanted to do was spectacularly stupid and dangerous, but that's being a kid for you. We would make weapons out of anything and everything. We would play games of bike-tag where the goal would be to get a pinecone in between someone's spokes. We would have roman candle wars, and we would jump off of everything we could climb - the taller the better.

Summers and winters in Colorado were even crazier, as I had seemingly the run of the entire state if I wanted to. Mountains and streams and trees were all part of a gigantic playground called Gunnison County.

And you know what? None of us ever got seriously hurt, none of us were killed, and none of us were ever abducted. We got banged up, to be sure, but that was part of the point. A kid has to skin his or her knee a few times so that it's not the end of the world when it happens.

There's an important stage of childhood development called the Robinson age (roughly 9-12) when kids test their boundaries, scare themselves, and essentially learn to deal with fear. The chant Bloody Mary, and play in the dark, and really push all fears and anxieties to their pre-pubescent limit. Kids growing up now are missing this. They don't have any unsupervised moments because OMG What if something happens!?!?!

Seriously, what'll happen is that your kid learns something for himself instead of you just telling him and then keeping him safe. The way it works now, the first taste of freedom a child gets is once they get their drivers' license and their state mandated mustang or land rover. That's what's gonna kill your kid.

You want to protect your child? Here's what you do. When they're about 5 years old, start drilling into their head: "Don't talk to strangers. Don't take candy from strangers. Walk on the side of the street facing traffic. Be home by (whenever you decide) or you're grounded."

That's pretty much it. The kids will take care of themselves from there, and be much better off for it, because here's the dirty little secret, but the world is no more dangerous for kids now. Sheltering your children will only harm them. Make the conscious choice to be okay with the risks involved, and your kids will grow up happier, better adjusted, capable, independent, and a thousand other things you want your kids to be, that they will NEVER be being raised in this current fashion. They might break their arm (none of us did, but it can happen.) If so, that's what happens, and they'll be better for having lived through it. There's also a super-remote possibility that they'll be killed. Put it into perspective, and no that they are thousands of times more likely to die in the car with you than out wandering on their own.

Lastly, remember that the later on in life they get the chance to roam unsupervised, the more dangerous their experiments in freedom are going to be. Wouldn't you rather have them using their first taste of freedom to climb trees, instead of getting loaded and having unprotected sex as a "fuck you" to their parents?

Seriously. Stop being paranoid. It's killing your children.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:38 PM on June 15, 2007 [4 favorites]

You want to protect your child? Here's what you do. When they're about 5 years old, start drilling into their head: "Don't talk to strangers. Don't take candy from strangers. Walk on the side of the street facing traffic. Be home by (whenever you decide) or you're grounded."

Amen to that. I am sure all of us, of a certain age, could recite a long litany of life's little instructions, shared like this and forgotten at our peril. The message was: with knowledge and presence of mind, you can take care of yourself. As a parent, my job is to make sure you know how to take care of yourself whether I'm around or not. And I'm confident that you can, and you should be, too."

Davejay's point is extremely interesting. I think parents are, indeed, trying to protect themselves by protecting children.
posted by Miko at 12:56 PM on June 15, 2007

Seriously. Stop being paranoid. It's killing your children.

So are you arguing against hyperbole, or only against the hyperbole that you don't agree with?
posted by OmieWise at 12:57 PM on June 15, 2007

I can't believe the liberties I took for granted as a kid, which I would not dream of granting to one of my own. My grandmother taught my sister and I how to take the bus to the mall, in one direction, and then to downtown, in the other. At 12, we were going wherever we please via BMX bike or bus.

That, and we had the run of many parks and parkways (MKE is great that way) within a 5 mile radius. AND an Atari 2600.

No way in HELL I would let a kid do that now. Except the Atari.
posted by everichon at 12:59 PM on June 15, 2007

"They need time playing in the countryside, in parks and in gardens where they can explore, dig up the ground and build dens."

Hmm, i don't remember ever making dens. We did have a lot of stick and rock fights, though. The sticks were guns and the rocks were hand grenades!
posted by ELF Radio at 1:19 PM on June 15, 2007

The kids may go crazy without access to the outdoors, but the parents are already crazy to deny them that.

This kind of alarmist behavior just reminds me of The Virgin Suicides. When did everyone decide it was okay to start micromanaging their children? They don't need tracking devices. They sure as hell don't need cell phones. If people don't trust their kids and teach them to be responsible with that trust, they'll never grow up. I was raised on two acres of brambly, snake-infest, uneven ground in a small town where I had free rein to bike to the river, or the general store and hang out with people who would undoubtedly be suspected of pedophilia by today's standards. I fell down and skinned my knees. I ate wild berries without considering whether they were poisonous. I poked dead animals with a stick and once brought home a sun-bleached cat skull, which my parents let me keep. Never once did I feel like I was growing up in a prison.

Abductions will happen whether or not parents make every effort not to let their kids out of their sight. Are we really supposed to respond to potential threats by denying children the freedom to go where they please? Cut the umbilical cord, ferchrissake.
posted by Saellys at 1:20 PM on June 15, 2007

So are you arguing against hyperbole, or only against the hyperbole that you don't agree with?

I was trying to make a point through use of clever irony. Apparently it didn't work.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:20 PM on June 15, 2007

When did everyone decide it was okay to start micromanaging their children?

When the other parents did, and made them feel bad about not doing it. "You let Jimmy play outside!?! That's so dangerous!"
posted by smackfu at 1:21 PM on June 15, 2007

I grew up in a beach town in California. I remember always pushing it, as far as boundaries were concerned. I used to go into the ocean, when my rules were that my mom had to be down on the beach watching for me to go in the water. I was very confident, to the point that a few times lifeguards came out to "rescue" me even though I was not in any trouble. This used to upset my mom, since word always got back.

I also crossed streets that I was not supposed to cross. This was also noted, and reported.

In retrospect, the parent network at that time was pretty awesome. It was hard to get away with stuff. And here it looked like they were just sitting around in yards drinking martinis.
posted by Danf at 1:22 PM on June 15, 2007

I was trying to make a point through use of clever irony. Apparently it didn't work.

Oh. I'd take responsibility for faulty reading. It's funny, now that I can see it. Sorry.
posted by OmieWise at 1:32 PM on June 15, 2007

You want to protect your child? Here's what you do. When they're about 5 years old, start drilling into their head: "Don't talk to strangers. Don't take candy from strangers. Walk on the side of the street facing traffic. Be home by (whenever you decide) or you're grounded."

I think this is pretty important, but too much of the "Don't talk to strangers" thing can have its own adverse effects. It was drilled into my head so often as a child that by the time I was in the first grade I wouldn't talk to any adults I didn't already know. This included my friends' parents, my parents' friends, and the teachers at my school who weren't mine. It got so bad that I didn't want to leave the house even to walk to school, for fear of all the strangers leering at me from the bushes. My parents and teacher had to sit me down and redefine the word "stranger" as it pertained to who I should and shouldn't talk to, and reassure me that it was highly unlikely I'd be plucked off the sidewalk and kidnapped in broad daylight. In trying to teach me to protect myself, they'd made me afraid of everyone, and turned me into my own overprotective parent.

This may just have been me, though, as I do have a tendency to overthink things. (hi, I'm on...)
posted by bluishorange at 1:34 PM on June 15, 2007

Heh. I love random synchronicities.

Some movie on TV running in the background... I'm paying almost zero attention... then I hear this line from Crusty Yet Wise Police Guy: I "I swear, these days nobody lets their kids out of the back yard without a leash."


Anyway, parenthood is a tough spot to occupy; I've been thanking my parents over and over again for the last 20+ years for all that they did and didn't do for me. I'm grateful they expected me to act like a decent and civilized person; I'm grateful they didn't let me get away with bullshitting them. I'm so grateful they gave me my freedom - that freedom to roam that we are talking about here. I'm very grateful that they were 100% there for me, even though it must have seemed to them like I was just mostly trying to escape that love a lot of the time. I'm incredibly grateful that they tended to believe my word more than any given authority figure, on occasion; I'm happy they didn't coddle me, didn't make food (what I did or didn't eat) into a big fucking deal (so that now, I eat pretty much all the good stuff); I'm really, really glad that even when they were disappointed with my decisions, they let me make them. And now I realize how difficult every one of those decisions were for them. And I'm that much more grateful.
posted by taz at 2:01 PM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid in the seventies, in the suburbs of a largish city, I had a ton of freedom to wander. I roamed a lot in the woods near my house (since then, all those woods have been bulldozed and turned into neighborhoods). I remember encountering people out shooting guns in the woods and thinking nothing of it. Rode my bike everywhere. My friends and I roamed what seemed like miles of concrete drainage ditches that criss-crossed our neighborhoods. I'd be gone all day, at eight or nine years of age, and my parents didn't have a problem with it.
posted by jayder at 3:05 PM on June 15, 2007

They tell 'em not to talk to strangers now, too. That's never really stopped a kid from talking to strangers.

Seriously, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, just as it was in the 16th century, and just as it was in ancient Greece. Any day now, it's going to just fall apart like the "Wonderful One-Horse Shay."
posted by Peach at 3:11 PM on June 15, 2007

. . . oh, and kids back then were attacked by predators, just as they are; usually someone their parents trusted, and not a stranger.
posted by Peach at 3:14 PM on June 15, 2007

Mod note: Then, death was real, and people were commonly exposed to it. The death of a child was a tragedy but not an uncommon one. Adults aged and died in the presence of their families.

Thomas Lynch is a poet and undertaker, and his great book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade talks about that:
The homes were large to house multiple births and generations. These were households in which, just as babies were being birthed, grandparents were aging upstairs with chicken soup and doctors' home visits until, alas, they died and were taken downstairs to the same room the babies were christened in to get what was called then "laid out."...The room in which grandparents were waked and new babies were baptized and love was proffered and contracted--the parlor.

Half a century, two world wars, and the New Deal later, homes got smaller and garages got bigger as we moved these big events out of the house. The emphasis shifted from stability to mobility. The architecture of the family and the homes they lived in changed forever by invention and intervention and by the niggling sense that such things didn't belong in the house. ...
Elders grew aged and sickly not upstairs in their own beds, but in a series of institutional venues: rest homes, nursing homes hospital wards, sanitoria...And having lived their lives and died their deaths outside the home, they were taken to be laid out, not in the family parlor but to the funeral parlor, where the building was outfitted to look like the family parlors gone forever, busy with overstuffed furniture, knickknacks, draperies, and the dead.
recycled comment
posted by kirkaracha (staff) at 3:55 PM on June 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

i too was a "free-range child," only limited by my feet or bike by aged 10--when we were in the country. i think the furthest i went was about 6 miles. (in our suburban home i was more limited, but once had to run like hell from a gang of teenaged boys in the park district woods. also i remember a strange couple stopping on a deserted street to "ask directions" and having to run away when they got out of the car, and a time i had to hide from older boys by the creek by climbing a tree. these incidents were heart-poundingly bad, but it never stopped me from going.)

at the lake i'd be gone by dawn and back by dinner. i almost got attacked by gigantic hogs, ripped my legs on barbed wire, wandered around in construction sites and old quarries and cemeteries, almost fell twenty feet down into a concrete a spillway, and was constantly paranoid about bad men in vans. i did most of this completely alone, and often hid from adults i saw approaching. this was a game most of the children i knew played--we scared each other by making up stories about wicked perverts and devil worshipers. all strange adults were scary. and i think it was a good thing to be paranoid. but we didn't stay home as a result, and my mother showed no indication of worry.

i have mixed feelings about this history now. on the one hand, in retrospect, my mother was neglectful in many ways. but i learned to love the woods, to sit still long enough to see wildlife, and to fend for myself.

i walk in the woods alone now, where i live on the edge of a small city. i never see women walking alone without dogs, and i still sometimes dodge off a trail to avoid strange men if i see them coming before they see me.

i NEVER see children in the woods, but sometimes i see evidence they've been there--forts and little shrines, not far from houses. i seldom see them on the streets alone either. we've taught the 10 and 12 year old to take the bus alone, and they roam in the neighborhood sometimes, but we almost have to crowbar them into it.

i sometimes get sad when i take them for walks in the woods. they like it there, but they have never ever asked to go alone. i make a point sometimes of letting them get far behind or far ahead to give them a taste. and i wonder if they'll ever break free.
posted by RedEmma at 4:23 PM on June 15, 2007

one time, during a homeschooling day, we sent three kids ages 9-12 to collect a water sample at the cemetery frog pond. we styled it as a sort of quest and i believe at least one of them was carrying a "staff". they were stopped by the cemetery caretaker in his pickup truck, and he told them that kids under sixteen (!!) weren't allowed in the cemetery without accompanying adults.

we told them that if it ever happens again, they should run like hell, because adults are too slow and fat to chase weird is it to have to tell children that?
posted by RedEmma at 4:28 PM on June 15, 2007

You know, kids aside, this is something that adults should pay more attention to as well. When I moved to where I currently live, I made it a point to make sure that the community was very acceptable to walkers. There are at least half a dozen parks within walking distance of nearly every residential area, and there are interesting places to walk to. I know this isn't all that exceptional for a rural area, but in a metropolis, it can make a lot of difference. I make it a point to walk as much as I can. I'd rather walk several miles and be out all day than grab a bus and be out for a few hours. And I try to find the paths that are most natural. Walking two miles down a busy road does not relieve stress at all, especially when 80% of the cars are the size of small studio apartments and driven by negligent high-strung suburbanites, yakking into their cell phones. I digress.

Point is, we should all be walking more. We should all be spending much more time just sitting near a pond than we do. Sometimes it's hard to find a way to do this; perhaps we need to start thinking about moving to places that support real life. I used to walk all day as a kid. I started early in the morning before anyone else was awake, and came home in the hot afternoon. Then for a number of years I lived deep in suburbia where walking all day meant seeing nothing more than more houses after more houses. It was a blighted, horrible city. If I used my bike, I could get all the way too... a strip mall!

So I moved some place else. I can smell trees when I step outside, not construction projects and fumes. I walk again like I used to when I was a kid. It puts the rest of life into perspective when you can do that.
posted by AmberV at 5:20 PM on June 15, 2007

Can't say as I've read every single one of these posts, but it's apparent that this topic strikes an emotionally important topic for all of us.

Yes, I was a wanderer, as a child.
posted by kozad at 5:32 PM on June 15, 2007

There is no talking to parents who confine their kids. The argument runs, "it might be one in a million, but what if my kid is the one?".
That logic doesn't stop them driving their kids on a freeway though.
My kids, although young, don't roam as much as I did as a kid. In fact, if my 4yro is playing on the footpath it is quite usual for a passerby to stop and come find me as they can't conceive he is a smart kid who can climb the front tree without supervision.
posted by bystander at 7:40 PM on June 15, 2007

I was a caged kid. This was in the eighties. When I was 18 mnths old I was very nearly abducted from my front yard by a woman who just lifted me over the fence. My mother spotted her and released our german shepherd, and I was promptly dropped. But it shocked the living shit out of Mum, who then proceeded to lock my siblings and I in little padded cages so it would never ever happen again.

I got an unfortunate foretaste of what the current crop of spawn are going through. It's stifling. I wasn't allowed to take the bus to school - and these were chartered school buses, mind - until I was thirteen, and I wasn't allowed to go anywhere unsupervised until I was fifteen. If I wanted to go visit someone's house my mother had to meet their immediate family first. If they were any further than 10m up the road I had to phone her as soon as I got to the other kids' house, and she'd come and get me after.

The result was I bolted the first chance I got, attending a university a good 200km north, where I spend my first two years drunk. I also had a hard time trusting anyone, walking around the campus alone, and I'd freak out every time I was alone on a footpath with anything male. My bullshit meter was not honed by years of telling yarns to other kids, so I had a few unfortunate romanic encounters that would have otherwise been avoided. I have lousy conflict resolution skills. I get lost easily. I spent a long time afraid in the world, because I never learned a lot of tools you free-range kids picked up.

I'm a strong-willed person, so I fought against most of that fear, and these days I walk everywhere, often alone, often at night, without too many hassles. I've taught myself a lot of those things. But it was hard learning all those lessons I'd missed out on as a kid.
posted by Jilder at 1:15 AM on June 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I live in Vietnam and it's refreshing how many risks people here take.

You see whole families riding on one motorbike, babies sandwiched between parents, you see kids playing in the traffic (and I've never seen one hit).

Children seem to be allowed to ignore traffic signals completely (you'll see kids in school uniform, two to a bike, go sailing through red lights, oblivious).

What's happily missing here, it seems, is the "orchid child" culture referenced above. Perhaps the reason kids are not put on a pedestal is because people genuinely care about kids. Children are loved by everyone, they get attention all day long from family, friends, and even strangers. It doesn't seem to occur to vietnamese that someone might want to do harm to a child because, well, I don't want to hurt children - why would you want to?

I sometimes get the impression that the Western solicitousness about children is a smokescreen to cover guilt about having less time to actually care for children.
posted by grubby at 3:15 AM on June 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Dudes, it's a different world. I ask my kids, why haven't you set fire to anything, why haven't you broke any bones yet, aren't you going to have any fun? And they tell me, mum, WTFLOLz, just as soon as I finish conquering the Byzantine era, and can Matt & Jason come over, with their computers, we'd like to play together all weekend. Sure, I say, but how about going out and buying some dope like a normal teen? WTF Mum? That's so 80s. This is the Y gen, you know, the heros.

And I suggest to my daughter, maybe you'd like to go to the park, and she's like, mum, me and my posse were msn-ing and we're going to the mall. Mkay, I say, wanna earn some money to buy shit by mowing the lawn? No way, old lady, fuck that capitalism crap, we're going window-shopping and checking out the bodies on the boy-teens -besides, you pay slave wages, and I'd rather have a job with one of those junk food places, if I could be bothered applying. In the meantime, I'm going to watch MTV and learn some really sexy moves, so I freak you and the father-unit out with my blatant sexuality.

So, yeah, my childhood was cooler, but my mum actually told me that her childhood was even more fun. Yeah, right - hey, that WW2 and you guys didn't even get to eat any butter, and nobody in your street had a car, just like nobody in our street had a video, well, not until the 80s. You guys were too early for the 60s, but us, we got to wear day-glo socks and have wild perms. We knew how to live. Sheesh!

So here's my prediction, based on absolutey no research. Our kids' kids, they'll be doing wild stuff in cyberspace - like with the suits- in second life or internet-sims or whatever. And there will be simulated nature parks for kids to ride their stationery bikes into, and their Japanese toilets will measure their turds, and all the middle-class and rich kids will be healthy and tall and have their wetware implanted in their brains. They will experience things we can only dream of. They won't envy us. Nor do our kids.

And so it goes.
posted by b33j at 4:39 AM on June 16, 2007

There's a billboard on 75 Central going north here in Dallas. It says in big bold letters, "NO FOND MEMORIES WERE EVER MADE AT THE MALL."

I was like, seventeen years old and I made out with a hot chick in the back of a strip mall, near a big dumpster. We were both crazy insane hopped up on adrenaline, hormones, and sugar. She was stacked. I was willing. She was eager. It was great.

One morning not too long ago, some twenty-plus years later, I glanced up at that stupid billboard as I drove by, and I just started laughing. Hadn't thought about that night in a very long time, but it just goes to show.. there's no truth in advertising.

I have no idea what that billboard is trying to sell, but it's apparently got nothing to do with the mall. Or condoms for that matter.

Those of you who are parents today, if you think what goes on at the mall is harmless and your children aren't banking up 'fond memories' well... go on thinking that. I'd hate to ruin a kid's good time by making you all paranoid about it. I'm sure they're reading bible verses to each other and helping old people crossing streets.

Don't pay no attention to the truth. Billboards don't. Why should you?
posted by ZachsMind at 11:38 AM on June 16, 2007

Regardless of the fact that each generation probably thinks conditions were better in its own childhood than in its childrens's, different upbringings do really make for different people, and this is one of the ways society gradually changes.

Some of this is within our control, and the result of choices we make daily - in town hall, in our own choice of activities, in the guidelines we set for our children. What kind of future person would you like to create? Choosing to let mass media and consumer culture make all the choices is a choice, too.
posted by Miko at 1:38 PM on June 16, 2007

« Older Deja View: Historic landscape "rephotos" (1800s...   |   I Got a Crush on Obama Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments