When I was in elementary school, my parents routinely kicked my brother and me outside with a command to "go play" -- and then left us to our own devices. Matt and I consequently spent entire days climbing all over the giant rocks in our neighbor's front yard (no doubt an old glacier deposit), inventing new games, and telling elaborate stories to ourselves about "Sister Sun," "Sister Moon," and, of course, the Zinkley family, who lived in a dome in Antarctica. We were always within earshot of at least one adult, but generally speaking, that adult never felt compelled to supervise directly unless something was clearly going wrong.
As soon as I turned ten, my parents also routinely left my brother and me home alone -- not overnight, obviously, but for a couple of hours at a time while they enjoyed a quick date night. And when he was around the same age, my brother had to make his own breakfast on many school days because Dad was at work, Mom was at art school, and I had to catch the bus to my junior high. One morning, Matt broke a syrup bottle, called a neighbor to help with the clean-up, and ended up leaving a thin layer of tacky goo all over the kitchen floor. Other than that, nothing untoward ever happened.
Clearly, if my parents were trying to raise us today, they'd get arrested, and we'd end up in foster care. Not only were they "criminally negligent" in letting us play by ourselves or stay home alone, but they also let us run ahead in the mall when we were toddlers and even - gasp! - occasionally left us behind in the car while they ran inside for a second to run a quick errand. Monsters!
Thanks to the twenty-four hour news cycle, our society is now convinced that the world is crawling with predators and that children can't possibly be trusted to look after themselves -- and the hysteria is rising to truly ridiculous levels. What possible rational reason can there be to bring charges on a mother who left her eleven-year-old - her ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD - alone in the car at her daughter's request while she went to the store? I can see being concerned about a child who's strapped in a car seat and therefore can't escape, but a middle schooler is not a helpless moron. So why are we behaving as if she is?
I think this nonsense is a reflection of just how privileged we modern Americans really are. Allow me to explain: Relatively speaking, our disaster response infrastructure is amazing -- so while we still have to contend with nature's wrath (especially given the unique geography of the North American continent), impacts are minimized. We have cold storage and state-of-the-art stove tops, so food poisoning is merely an occasional inconvenience and not a daily concern. We have cheap and readily available vaccines for diseases that, for my parents, were unavoidable facts of life. And since the 1990's, the crime rate has fallen across the board. But this astounding accomplishment - creating one of the safest societies in world history - has made us prideful. Because we have removed or reduced many dangers that were once commonplace, we think we can remove all danger -- and that, readers, is delusion that is costing us our children's sanity.
A strong and growing body of research suggests that kids need risk -- and that if we don't let them climb trees, start fires, and use power tools, we actually make them less resilient and more prone to anxiety and depression. Now obviously, we have to keep age appropriateness in mind; I wouldn't, for instance, give a two-year-old Daddy's electric drill. But the logic here makes profound sense in light of what has been found to be effective for the treatment of phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Adults who are suffering from pathological anxiety are given medications, true, but they are also encouraged to sit and talk through their fear until it goes away on its own. Why wouldn't children also benefit from this "exposure therapy"?
So please, parents: Don't be like those fun-killing playgrounds and preschools out there that post a million rules for their play spaces and never, ever let children climb to the top of the monkey bars. Be a little more like parents in Japan, who let even tiny children go a few doors down to buy a block of tofu. Kids are more capable than you think!