Most kids growing up today have significantly less freedom than their parents did during childhood, according to a new Slate.com survey that asked 6,000 parents what sorts of activities they allow.
"The results give a fairly clear picture, over several decades, of a shortening leash for American children," write authors Jessica Grose and Hanna Rosin.
In addition to being a fascinating picture of modern childhood, it's an exercise in nostalgia. Nostalgia for a more carefree era, filled with hours of free time for kids, sure. But also for an era of judgment-free time for parents.
The Slate writers cite national statistics to illustrate a trend toward extremely risk-averse parenting — 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone in 1971; by 1990 only 9 percent did — and find their survey respondents fall right in line.
When asked when they were allowed to walk alone 1 to 5 miles from home, a majority of Slate readers born in the 1940s said by second or third grade. Respondents born in the 1980s mostly said fifth grade, and the majority of the 1990s cohort said middle school.
"A similar trend shows up for a host of other issues, such as going to the playground alone and having to check in with parents when you are out for several hours," write Grose and Rosin. "The shift in going out after dark is especially dramatic. Earlier cohorts were allowed out at night in middle school, but by the 1990s the norm is solidly high school."
The shortening of the proverbial leash was most dramatic between 1980 and 1990, according to the Slate survey, which the authors say matches national survey results.
"This is because, during the Reagan era, a panic about the dangers of childhood began to take hold. Citizen advocates lamented the perils of playgrounds, and lawsuits forced cities to get rid of what was deemed dangerous equipment. … Ronald Reagan declared National Missing Children's Day, and milk cartons began featuring missing children's faces, making every breakfast an opportunity to fear the worst for your children."
It's also because we turned judging each other's parenting into a national pastime.
One woman in the Slate survey admits letting her second-grader bike alone to a friend's house — "although the neighbors complain." The survey itself was inspired by the story of South Carolina mother Debra Harrell's arrest for leaving her 9-year-old at a playground while she went to work. Florida mom Nicole Gainey is facing up to five years in jail for letting her 7-year-old walk alone to the park a half-mile from their home a few weeks ago.
We can talk all we want about moms working and neighborhoods growing more isolated and 24-hour news cycles scaring us around-the-clock. And those are all legitimate factors in our leash-shortening.
But there's another element of fear at play here: the fear of being judged, or worse, ratted out, by your fellow citizens. We live in a culture primed to pillory helicopter parents for hovering and smothering, working parents for outsourcing and neglecting, and parents of every stripe for failing to put down their phones.
When my daughter was 3, I was playing with her in the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park when a dear friend called to tell me her dad passed away. I moved a few feet from my daughter and continued to talk to my friend — eyes never, obviously, off my kid. Less than a minute into our conversation, an angry mom nearby mouthed to me, "Get off your phone."
I do feel like my kids are less safe than I was at their ages. But it has nothing to do with working moms or isolated neighbors or overhyped crime statistics. It has everything to do with the fact that when many people see a kid in danger — or perceived to be — their instinct isn't to help; it's to track down, shame and report the kid's parents.
Social media offers an inviting platform to call out missteps. Smartphones make it possible to offer photographic evidence. And a competitive, judgmental culture makes it all seem as natural as breathing.
We're not, by and large, looking out for each other's kids — or for each other. And that's both dangerous and terrifying.