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Remembering The Days When Kids Ran Wild

— Halloween has arrived. And if tonight goes as it has in the past, I’ll spend part of the evening watching my kids trick-or-treat. I don’t watch them because I want to. I watch them to make sure they won’t be abducted or hit by a car.

There’s a conversation I’ve had many times with parents my age, in which we wonder why our parents worried about us so much less than we worry about our kids. We all say the same thing. When we were young, but old enough to cross the street by ourselves, our parents would send us out the front door and say, Go play. We’d wander the neighborhood. We’d ride our bikes to friends’ houses that were a dozen blocks away. We’d play in fields and canyons and hang out at the park.

Today, by contrast, parents are afraid to let their kids out of their sight. Children don’t walk or ride their bikes to school. Even kids who catch the school bus are accompanied to the bus stop by a mom or dad. I was a school bus driver in Minneapolis twenty-five years ago. Even then, elementary school children found their own way to the bus stop.

What turned us into a nation of hovering parents? One contributing factor must be the sensational coverage of child abduction and child sex-abuse cases in the media.

In San Diego the trial of David Westerfield, convicted of kidnapping and murdering a seven-year-old neighbor, made me fear for the safety of my son. Yet abduction of kids by strangers is so rare it’s outrageous to let it govern your parenting. Parents today act as if they know there’s a child molester, living down the block, who sits at his front window all day, just waiting for the first unprotected kid to wander by.

Another factor is the modern tendency to program a kid’s day. Middle and high-income parents seem to believe their kids just won’t turn out right unless they spend their leisure time doing “constructive” activities. This means lots of driving kids around town to soccer practice and music lessons. It also means a lot less time that kids spend wandering around, playing their own games and discovering their own adventures.

We also have smaller families today. It was impossible to keep close track of every kid back when people had seven or eight. I’m guessing kids were also taken more for granted by past generations. People got married. They had kids and they didn’t make a huge fuss over them.

My point is that family life in urban/suburban America has changed dramatically, and we have to decide if it’s for the better or the worse.

Fearing for our kids is natural. But when does it become an obsession that robs children of their fun and the skills they need to become independent adults? This Halloween, I wish all parents, including myself, the wisdom to figure that out.

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