By Kim Robson:
Those of us over a certain age still remember unsupervised outdoor playtime. We went out on our bikes or roller skates, visited neighborhood friends, bought candy at the 7-11, explored empty canyons, collected rocks and critters, and didn’t return home until dusk. And we walked or biked to school. Uphill, both ways, in the snow, as the old saw goes.
Today we have “helicopter parenting,” with parents obsessively hovering over their kids’ every waking moment. Even when kids are asleep, there are baby monitors to keep watch over the precious flowers. We treat them like glass. We don’t let them get dirty. And we drive them everywhere, strapped into safety seats, adding to carbon emissions and childhood obesity. (Remember floating around loose in the back of station wagons? No seatbelts anywhere? Somehow we survived.)
Fear of any and every possible tragedy, no matter how far-fetched, leads to “worst-first” thinking. This mindset has become so ubiquitous that a backlash movement generally known as Free-Range Kids or Free-Range Parenting has sprung up. The idea is that, just like free range chickens or cattle, kids thrive mentally and physically when allowed to roam about freely, getting fresh air and exercise, inventing their own entertainment, and relying on their own resources.
Many free range parents complain about school or government interference in their kids’ blossoming independence. Schools have elaborate, time-consuming and onerous procedures for simply picking up kids after school. Most schools are more like prisons now, with locked gates and high fencing. Kids simply leaving campus and walking home on their own is out of the question. Kids found unsupervised at neighborhood parks are apprehended and their parents arrested. Child Protective Services might even get involved.
The state of Oregon is taking a refreshing step in the right direction. The Oregon Department of Transportation has issued a poster entitled “When can my child safely walk or ride to school alone?” With no legal minimum age requirement for children traveling on their own, the state sides with sanity by telling parents to use their own judgment. Imagine! Instead of fear-mongering and terrifying parents with worst-case scenarios, the state’s poster asks parents to assess their children’s ability to handle increasing levels of independence:
“Being old enough is different from being ready. Think about your unique child. Can your child:
- Pay attention?
- Remember and follow rules?
- Make good decisions?
- Feel comfortable on their own?
Some kids may be ready at a younger age or later than their peers. As parents, you know your child best, so use your parental judgment.”
No one is more qualified to decide if your child is ready to handle independence than YOU — certainly not some meddling fussbudget.
In addition to Oregon’s DOT, the state’s Public Health Department also encourages parents to allow their kids to walk to school. The health department’s motivation is for kids to get more exercise. “Walking to school is one way for children and youth to get consistent physical activity. According to the 2013 Oregon Healthy Teens Survey, approximately one in five 8th graders and one in six 11th graders walk to school every day.”
With so many kids leading sedentary lifestyles in front of computer screens, they are rarely meeting the daily recommended levels of physical activity. Schools can help by providing maps with recommended safety corridors that feature wide sidewalks, speed bumps, crossing guards and slower speed limits. Parents can also create their own route specific to their child’s location and needs.
Kudos to the state of Oregon for siding with common sense. Unfortunately, individual towns can still impose ridiculous rules. For instance, in Beaverton, Oregon, leaving a child under the age of ten alone in a public library is considered child neglect, a Class A crime. The police department will be called in if this happens. Not only must the child have a parent or guardian present, but he or she must be kept “within line of sight at all times.” I guess Mom or Dad has nothing better to do all day than stare creepily at their kids.