Can you forgive her?
In March, Lenore Skenazy, a New York City mother, gave her 9-year-old son, Izzy, a MetroCard, a subway map, a $20 bill and some quarters for pay phones. Then she let him make his own way home from Bloomingdale's department store by subway and bus.
Izzy survived unscathed. He wasn't abducted by a perverted stranger or pushed under an oncoming train by a homicidal maniac. He didn't even get lost. According to Skenazy, who wrote about it in a New York Sun column, he arrived home "ecstatic with independence."
His mother wasn't so lucky. Her column generated as much outrage as if she'd suggested that mothers make extra cash by hiring their kids out as child prostitutes.
But it also reinvigorated an important debate about children, safety and independence.
Reader, if you're much over 30, you probably remember what it used to be like for the typical American kid. Remember how there used to be this thing called "going out to play"?
For younger readers, I'll explain this archaic concept. It worked like this: The child or children in the house as long as they were over age 4 or so went to the door, opened it, and ... went outside. They braved the neighborhood pedophile just waiting to pounce, the rusty nails just waiting to be stepped on, the trees just waiting to be fallen out of, and they "played."
"Play," incidentally, is a mysterious activity children engage in when not compelled to spend every hour under adult supervision, taking soccer or piano lessons or practicing vocabulary words with computerized flashcards.
All in all, "going out to play" worked out well for kids. As the American Academy of Pediatrics' Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg testified to Congress in 2006, "Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles. ... Play helps children develop new competencies ... and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges." But here's the catch: Those benefits aren't realized when some helpful adult is hovering over kids the whole time.
Thirty years ago, the "going out to play" culture coexisted with other culturally sanctioned forms of independence for even very young children: Kids as young as 6 used to walk to school on their own, for instance, or take public buses or gulp subways. And if they lived on a school bus route, their mommies did not consider it necessary to escort them to the bus stop every morning and wait there with them.
But today, for most middle-class American children, "going out to play" has gone the way of the dodo, the typewriter and the 8-track tape. From 1981 to 1997, for instance, University of Michigan time-use studies show that 3- to 5-year-olds lost an average of 501 minutes of unstructured playtime each week; 6- to 8-year-olds lost an average of 228 minutes. (On the other hand, kids now do more organized activities and have more homework, the lucky devils!) And forget about walking to school alone. Today's kids don't walk much at all (adding to the childhood obesity problem).
Increasingly, American children are in a lose-lose situation. They're forced, prematurely, to do all the un-fun kinds of things adults do (Be over-scheduled! Have no downtime! Study! Work!). But they don't get any of the privileges of adult life: autonomy, the ability to make their own choices, use their own judgment, maybe even get interestingly lost now and then.
Somehow, we've managed to turn childhood into a long, hard slog. Is it any wonder our kids take their pleasures where they can find them, by escaping to "Grand Theft Auto IV" or the alluring, parent-free world of MySpace?
But, but, but, you say, all the same, Skenazy should never have let her 9-year-old son take the subway! In New York, for heaven's sake! A cesspit of crack addicts, muggers and pedophiles!
Well, no. We parents have sold ourselves a bill of goods when it comes to child safety. Forget the television fear-mongering: Your child stands about the same chance of being struck by lightning as of being the victim of what the Department of Justice calls a "stereotypical kidnapping." And unless you live in Baghdad, your child stands a much, much greater chance of being killed in a car accident than of being seriously harmed while wandering unsupervised around your neighborhood.
Skenazy responded to the firestorm generated by her column by starting a new Web site freerangekids.wordpress.com dedicated to giving "our kids the freedom we had." She explains: "We believe in safe kids. ... We do NOT believe that every time school-age children go outside, they need a security detail."Next time I take my kids to New York, I'm asking Skenazy to baby-sit.
Rosa Brooks is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. E-mail Brooks at email@example.com