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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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Avatar for user 'baugus042'

baugus042 | October 31, 2010 at 1:12 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

I think that with the more information a parent gets about the child molester that DOES live down the street the more we watch our kids. Back when I was a kid we did not know that there was child molesters living down the street or right next door. Now our local law enforcement web sites list where known sex offenders live and if you check one of those web sites out you will see that yes child molesters do live down the street. The laws that protect our children from these people need to be changed. Also back when I was a kid things like child abduction did not make the news like they do now. Ignorance was bliss as they say.

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | October 31, 2010 at 9:01 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

It is true that ignorance is bliss. I just wonder whether we need a bit more of that blissfulness. Mass communication and telecommunication, being what they are today, it seems that if something bad happens thousands of miles away it happened in your back yard. Yes, child abduction happens and when it happens to your kid, the statistics don't mean a thing. But I think we need to find a balance between protecting children and letting them live in a way that's sensible and meaningful.

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Avatar for user 'Khasar'

Khasar | November 1, 2010 at 5:09 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

I've wondered about this also and it may not just be parents being overprotective. In the area I live, I see uniformed adults near schools with a hand-held stop sign to assist kids getting across a street that has a stoplight and crosswalk and is clearly marked for motorists to be more careful and drive slower. In my youth it was as you said; I'd go outside and explore the streets, canyons and storm drains in the area with my friends or on my own and walk or ride my bike to school. I think people have become more isolated over the years with the advent of TV and home computers. We don't get involved in our neighborhoods, or know our neighbors very well, so we probably will let our imagination run riot when we hear these stories of child predators. Those stories weren't in the news when I was a kid and the isolation was only starting to take root.

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Avatar for user 'sepp'

sepp | November 1, 2010 at 10:14 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

i think what was said about today's parents always hovering around their kids has much to do with the fact that parents are usually older these days than say a generation or two ago. with age comes the realization of vulnerability, even mortality, both with respect to ourselves and our kids. for this reason, and also the fact that we typically spend less time with them than our parents did (because of full time work obligations of both parents) our children are more precious to us (we also tend to have fewer of them). i very much agree with the isolation argument, resulting in the loss of trust into our neighbors and fellow citizens.

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Avatar for user 'MamaBear'

MamaBear | November 4, 2010 at 5:16 p.m. ― 6 years, 4 months ago

I grew up in the '70s in LA. There was no running wild. A boy in my neighborhood -- that I played with often -- was killed in a hit and run accident on his way to school. After that, I was never, ever allowed to walk anywhere by myself -- or with other kids.The Hillside Strangler was all over the news. It turned out that one of the guys was a frequent guest in the office where my mom worked. He seemed nice.

My mother was a young single mom. I'm sure you can imagine that a young single mom in the '70s was not affluent. If you see the world through her eyes, the world was a scary place, and kids needed to be protected. Can you blame her?

It could be that we lived in a city. We didn't have canyons and fields and places to explore. We had traffic and smog and if we stayed out too long playing in the summertime our lungs would burn from the pollution.

That said... I had a wonderful childhood. Lots of friends and family around all the time. We even knew most of our neighbors. One of my best friends today was my childhood neighbor.

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Avatar for user 'wellthen'

wellthen | November 4, 2010 at 5:56 p.m. ― 6 years, 4 months ago

I have a hard time believing L.A. doesn't have canyons or places to explore.

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Avatar for user 'MamaBear'

MamaBear | November 5, 2010 at 9:17 a.m. ― 6 years, 4 months ago

Of course LA has canyons and places to explore. I should have been more specific. My neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley was a flat concrete jungle. Huge, wide, heavily trafficked streets were lined with two-story sprawling apartment buildings (with pools in the center) and strip malls. The closest thing to "something to explore" was our neighborhood park. According to my mom, there was a lot of drug activity and I wasn't allowed to go alone.

My mom took me out of our neighborhood to "explore," but I thought this conversation was about sending kids outside to play without any adult supervision. I'm just explaining why that didn't happen for me. It wasn't because my parents were older, highly educated helicopter parents. They weren't any of those things.

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | November 9, 2010 at 9:43 a.m. ― 6 years, 4 months ago

I'm glad the issue of isolation came up. The personal isolation we've achieve through large homes, cars, TVs and home computers have driven us inside and away from others. That necessarily means we don't get out as much, and neither do our kids. Isolation fosters paranoia, making us fear what we don't see and don't know about. Does greater maturity of older parents make more aware of mortality? I suppose it does. Maybe young parents are more likely to be neglectful... Again, maybe a little bit of that isn't so bad!

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