Let 'Em Roam

When we were about 7 and 9, my brother and I used to hang around the neighborhood after school with a roving gang of kid skaters. On our rollerblades (all altered to be break-less), we'd play Man Hunt, Kick the Can, and Tag through the streets of Park Slope, Brooklyn. We'd stop for pizza and candy and soda. We'd laugh at dirty jokes the older ones told that we didn't understand, we'd bicker over game rules and ignore sore losers til they shaped up. I was the only girl but that didn't seem to matter in our prepubescent world. What mattered was that we were FREE. Til the streelights came on at least. Then, without discussion, and sometimes without even a goodbye, we'd roll back to our houses and our parents who had dinner just about done. When I tell people stories like this, they think I'm lying. Or that I'm actually much older than 30 since I apparently grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s.  But I'm telling you, it's true and it's all I can think about this morning after reading Hanna Rosin's incredible article in The Atlantic called "The Overprotected Kid".

Sure I had piano lessons  and supervised playdates and was walked to and from school by an adult until I was 9-- it was the 90s after all-- but ultimately, my childhood had elements of a bygone era of kid freedom that hardly seems to exist anymore. And for that I'm crazy grateful.

I don't have children yet so I am in no way reading this as a parent, which is sure to color one's perspective. But I will say that I've been thinking a lot about the overprotective nature of modern child rearing since moving out to the country because there's something about being in this much openness, away from all those Park Slope strollers and baby groups and fancy toy stores, that's made me rethink how I might raise a kid.

And the gist of that change is more wandering, more freedom, more unstructured time that can be lost to hours of exploration and imagined worlds. Especially outdoors.

The heart of this article is about risk and seemingly aimless and unsupervised exploration as it relates to independence and growth. Rosin gathers information for her analysis from lots of different studies, articles, and documentaries and is adept at inserting hard facts into her discussion which is exactly what makes this piece a THOUSAND times better than any other pop-science 'play is important' article I've come across in the past ten years. And in it she gives a great stab at answering the enormous, nagging question we all have about this which is:

Yeah, kids used to run around on their own a lot more through the woods and all that, but aren't kids SAFER nowadays? Aren't there fewer accidents and abductions?

The short answer is, no. Not really.

And in fact, kids might even be WORSE off from all this adult intervention. Less creative, less independent, less willing to take risks, less able to deal with the consequences of risks, uncooperative, self-centered... the list goes on and is awfully familiar if you've ever read anything about what we all accuse "millennials" of being nowadays.

Of course the world has changed since the 1970s--which is when most folks pinpoint the dramatic shift in child rearing styles--but NOT into a more dangerous place. Freak accidents are still freak accidents. Like Rosin says, "Head injuries, runaway motorcycles, a fatal fall onto a rock... turn out to be freakishly rare, unexpected tragedies that no amount of safety-proofing can prevent."

All of this is easier said than done. Someone remind me of this post when I refuse to let go of my 12 year old daughter's hand in the crosswalk one day. But it's good food for thought. And I'm so glad that there are people like Roisin and all the folks she spoke to who are doing such fantastic job of making us reconsider exactly what we do in the name of child safety and betterment.

A parting thought: an essential element of all this kind of unsupervised play is having other kids to play this way with.  You might decide your kid is allowed to go skating through the neighborhood with their friends til sunset, but if every one of their friends is required to have an adult around, well, then your kid isn't getting that kind of freedom after all.

That, or they're skating alone. Which sure, can be kind of fun. But they should really have an appreciative audience when they nail that grind down the full flight of stairs of the old building with the "No Trespassing" sign on it, cuz that was CRAZY and they DID IT flawlessly.