Skenazy: Let’s criminalize childhood


Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy

Free-Range Kids
by Lenore Skenazy

A whopping 68 percent of Americans think there should be a law that prohibits kids 9 or younger from playing at the park unsupervised, despite the fact that most of them no doubt grew up doing just that.

What’s more, 43 percent feel the same way about 12-year-olds. They would like to criminalize all preteens playing outside on their own (and, I guess, arrest their no-good parents).

Those are the results of a Reason-Rupe poll, confirming that we have not only lost all confidence in our kids and our communities but also lost all touch with reality.

“I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, anytime, that underestimates children’s abilities more than we North Americans do today,” says Boston College Professor Emeritus Peter Gray, author of “Free to Learn,” a book that advocates for more unsupervised play, not less.

In his book, Gray writes about a group of 13 kids who played several hours a day for four months without supervision (though they were observed by an anthropologist).

“They organized activities, settled disputes, avoided danger, dealt with injuries (and) distributed goods … without adult intervention,” he writes.

The kids ranged in age from 3 to 5.

Of course, those kids were allowed to play in the South Pacific, not South Carolina, where Debra Harrell was thrown in jail for having the audacity to believe that her 9-year-old would be fine by herself at a popular playground teeming with activity. In another era, it not only would have been normal for a child to say goodbye to her mom and then go off to spend a summer’s day there but also would have been odd to consider that child “unsupervised.” After all, she was surrounded by other kids, parents and park personnel.

Harrell’s real crime was that she refused to indulge in inflated fears of abduction and insist her daughter never leave her side. Though there are obviously many neighborhoods racked by crime where it makes more sense to keep kids close, the country at large is enjoying its lowest crime level in decades.

Too bad most people reject this reality. The Reason-Rupe poll asked, “Do kids today face more threats to their physical safety?” A majority — 62 percent — said yes. Perhaps that’s because the majority of respondents also said they don’t think the media or political leaders are overhyping the threats to our kids.

But they are.

“One culprit is the 24-hour news cycle,” said Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” when I asked him why so few kids are outside these days. Turn on cable TV “and all you have to do is watch how they take a handful of terrible crimes against children and repeat that same handful over and over,” he said. “And then they repeat the trial over and over, and so we’re conditioned to live in a state of fear.”

Rationally understanding that we are living in very safe times is not enough to break the fear, he added.

So what is?

Experience. Through his Children & Nature Network, Louv urges families to gather in groups and go on hikes or even to that park down the street that Americans seem so afraid of. Once kids are outside with a bunch of other kids, they start to play. It just happens. Meanwhile, their parents stop imagining predators behind every bush because they are face to face with reality instead of “Criminal Minds.” They start to relax. It just happens. And when it does, it becomes normal again to see kids playing in the cul-de-sacs and parks.

Why should South Pacific toddlers have all the fun?

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.”

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  • Trucker

    While I agree with Ms. Skenazy’s letter as a whole, there is one statement which she made that I certainly don’t agree with, and that being, “the country at large is enjoying it’s lowest crime level in decades.” Really, Ms. Skenazy, do you believe that? If crime is at it’s lowest in decades, why is national and local security now at an all time high? I don’t know where you get your information, but please let us know. I’m sure that it will give the populous of the larger American cities and every little city and town across the country, much solace in knowing this fact (?). Maybe our law enforcement officials across America could give some info to debunk “the theory” that there is less crime. This is certainly what our leaders in Washington would have you believe. And while you’re at it, please tell me there’s a real Santa, Tooth Fairy, and Easter Bunny.

    • Mark

      She gets it from the crime statistics, specifically the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and the BJS’s National Crime Victimization Survey. The former is compiled annually from crimes reported by police departments around the country, and the latter estimates the same from a survey of the American public. Both indicate that violent crime is nearly half of what it was at the start of the 1990s. Here are the links:

  • Jayson

    I see, Trucker, there is no response to your reply…I would also like some answers to your questions….

    Thanks Trucker for asking those questions..

  • peedeepost

    Lenore Skenazy is a nationally syndicated columnist. I have sent her this link, which includes your two comments, and asked if she’s interested in replying.

    – Kevin

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