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Let Kids Be Kids

There's been a movement underfoot recently telling parents to let kids be kids. "Parents need to let kids out from 'house arrest'," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle in a story this past weekend. That followed articles in The Post ("Getting Lost in the Great Indoors") and Slate ("The Paradox of Play").

Meanwhile, bestselling author Conn Iggulden ("The Dangerous World of Boys") talks of his reasons for writing the book in Sunday's Outlook section in The Post: "I wrote 'The Dangerous Book for Boys' as a handbook for boys with scenes like that from my childhood in mind. I wasn't trying to please anyone else. I was just trying to free boys to be themselves again, the way we were when my brother and I were growing up."

A great deal of the thinking behind these articles and books makes sense. Kids are pressured to meet "No Child Left Behind" standards. Recess and physical education are limited. Dual working parent households leave few hours for unplanned, unstructured play time. Kids have more technological toys than any time in our past. Adult fears of the bad, bad world mean that we're more careful about watching our kids' every step than our parents were.

But I have to wonder: How much of this thinking is nostalgia for a way of life that is disappearing and how much is reality? Are some of these issues different depending on where in the country you live? Do kids in more rural places than D.C. and New York have more freedom to explore than children in larger cities? Share your thoughts.

By Stacey Garfinkle |  June 25, 2007; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Tweens
Previous: The Debate: No Contact Allowed | Next: Trust Your Instincts


According the SFC article "child obesity is growing twice as fast in *rural* areas than in urban areas.[emphasis added]" WOW! That was a surprise. Anyone know the source of this statement? I would guess NHANES, but maybe something else? Thanks.

Posted by: NAC | June 25, 2007 9:07 AM | Report abuse

I am painfully aware that my son does not have the freedom to move around the neighborhood that either my wife or I did. We all knew kids who were hit by cars, I had two neighborhood friends who were molested by a neighbor, we were all approached by jr high kids trying to get us to smoke or drink or take drugs, we were all beaten up and terrorized by neighborhood toughs. My grandmother's rural area was the worst of all- all of my friends from her block are dead from farm accidents or homicide, not one kid my age survived. In my neighborhood one family and their children is casting a pall on the block and I would never in a million years let my son go to their house unchaperoned- based on the number of fires they have there alone (3 in 10 years). I don't know what the solution is. I want my son to be free to explore his environment but I am also scared if not petrified by violent, uncontrolled kids whose sole source of guidance seems to be a 2 hour church sermon on Sundays followed by Dad hanging out on the sidewalk with beer in a bag.

Posted by: DCer | June 25, 2007 9:24 AM | Report abuse

I moved from DC/NoVa to Western Wisconsin a few years ago.

I'll say that I see more kids simply running around, riding bikes and hanging out here than I did back east. It's actually nice to see.

Then again, this is a an overall rural area (though where we live is a bit more service oriented). The outdoors are a part of life here, even when it's exceptionally cold in winter. Lots of hiking trails and biking paths and even bike lanes on the bigger roads.

Where there's still a lot of "outdoors" to be found, you'll probably still have kids playing in it.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | June 25, 2007 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Life is more dangerous now than it was when we were growing up. There is much more traffic on the roads and people drive so aggressively.

I remember just riding my bike around the streets when I was young, but it's not like I can just let my kids ride there bikes around on a 4 lane highway. They'd get killed for sure.

Posted by: Bob | June 25, 2007 9:27 AM | Report abuse

I grew up on a 45 acre farm surrounded by other farms. Once I had demonstrated to my parents some common sense, I was allowed to roam over the entire area on my own or with friends. We were free to do things, to explore, to build or smash or wade in the creek, go fishing or climb trees, or build clubhouses. It was a freedom that most children, living in cramped subdivisions or apartment complexes with strangers literally a wall away, no longer have.

My neighborhood has a wide greenway running behind my house, and occasionally I see children playing in it. Only from a few families, though; most of the other children are confined to the limits of their parents' watchful vision, usually in the smallish yard or cul de sac.

Posted by: John L | June 25, 2007 9:33 AM | Report abuse

I would not DREAM of letting my children run around in the DC area. My children are just now getting to the age where this is going to be an issue, and I'm not sure what I'm going to do. We've been living in small-town Texas, and they have had a degree of freedom, and now we're moving (back) to DC - and I'm appalled at how cramped and dangerous our surroundings are about to be again.

Yes, there is more freedom in small towns. And all that running around builds things you can't get elsewhere: decision making ability, judgment, independence. I don't know what we're going to do for that once we move back to DC, and it bothers me.

I guess we'll be vacationing somewhere rural where they can get out and do some REAL summering. And they'll go to camp (which is supervised, of course). But I think that their daily lives are going to be much more constrained. With that said, we're some of the last kids who come in the front door, drop the books, and head straight out the back. Into the large, fenced back yard, to play outdoors until nightfall. Not sure what we'll do about that now.

Posted by: bad mommy | June 25, 2007 9:41 AM | Report abuse

I have small kids - 1 and 3 - so no free roaming yet, but we live next door to an elementary school and on a street with about 35 kids that are grade school to high school age. We see kids at the school park all the time without parents (my kids are there every night in the post-nap-pre-dinner period) and we see kids playing on our street in their yards. I grew up in a small town where bike riding was safer than it is where I live now, but it's not that far off from what I remember. It seems more like that freedom to explore is more about being our unsupervised than having acres of woods and streams to run through. I think you can still get that to an extent.

Posted by: Robyn | June 25, 2007 9:45 AM | Report abuse

I'm a working adult and wouldn't dream of taking a walk outside in DC. I go from work to home as quickly as possible. When I drive, I keep my head down and my foot on the gas. When my contract is up, I'm leaving town ASAP.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 25, 2007 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I agree that it's a sad fact that living in the DC or NY area makes it more difficult to let kids roam free. I grew up in Wisconsin, where I remember summers of endless pool days -- I'd put on sandals with my speedo, throw a towel around my neck, and bike to the pool for 8-12 hours. It's hard for me to imagine letting kids do that now, but I'd really like to. We live just outside DC in Maryland, and our neighborhood is still very safe, but it's just a different time. I believe independent play fostered some of my best attributes -- and for that reason, we tell our boys that "I'm bored" are bad words. I tell them they have an entire world of games and adventures in their imagination. I think it's still possible to instill that message, but it doesn't come as naturally as when I was little. It just takes a bit more parenting work.

Posted by: Lori | June 25, 2007 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I grew up in Bethesda & Kensington, right by Rock Creek Park. I spent HOURS & HOURS exploring the woods and the creek with my friends. I now live in a suburb of Philadelphia where there's much less access to open green space and the neighborhoods have a much higher density. I'd love for my 2 sons to go out and wander for hours like I did, but given what a bunch of maniacs the drivers are around here, I doubt that will happen.

Posted by: Tom | June 25, 2007 10:53 AM | Report abuse

We live in a small town...right behind the Capitol. It's not Mayberry, but my kids are 11 and 10 and I let them walk the two blocks from our house to the park to rollerblade or play. Before summer, they used to walk home from school with a seventh-grader that lives a block away. And both have been able to walk to friend's houses who live close by. They play in the alley behind our house in the evening with the kids from 3 other families and we send them all--8 kids between 14 and 4--to the corner store for ice cream.

We have an on-going discussion about stranger danger and tested them on how to safely cross a street, with or without a light. We'd be doing them a disservice keeping them in a bubble, and why live anywhere, if you're going to stay in your bunker the whole time.

We parents look out for all the kids, all the time, and the community effort to give our kids some freedom is really paying off. It's nice.

Posted by: Hill Mom | June 25, 2007 11:09 AM | Report abuse

When I was a young pup, there was no such thing as Nintendo, X-Box, the Internet, instant messaging, VCR, and when we got our first color TV, It received far less than 200 channels. And the only air conditioner was a window unit inside my parent's room which I wasn't allowed into.

Of course we played outside all day back then. What else was there to do besides pester mom?

Posted by: Lil Husky | June 25, 2007 11:13 AM | Report abuse

It was a freedom that most children, living in cramped subdivisions or apartment complexes with strangers literally a wall away, no longer have.

This is a seriously strange comment. We live in a townhouse with FRIENDS living less than a wall away. I don't distrust all my neighbors or treat them as strangers.

I think this is a big issue and one that the Capitol Hill resident described when talking about a "small town" in the city. One has to be aware of what's going on and engage people we don't otherwise know until they become friends.

Posted by: DCer | June 25, 2007 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I made my comment based on experiences my friends and I have had with apartments; way too much transience and way too many apartments themselves to get to know everyone beyond a casual level.

Maybe if you grew up in an environment your perceptions would be different, but to me apartments are more crowded than I'm comfortable with. Even in my subdivision, while I know everyone on my street, there are still many other homes within view that I know nothing about the people living in them.

Posted by: John L | June 25, 2007 2:46 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, but has anyone looked at the sex offender registry for this area?

Near my upscale Arlington zip code alone here are 200+ offenders! I'd encourage my kids to play outside supervised, but othewise, no way!

Posted by: NoVA | June 25, 2007 3:39 PM | Report abuse

My little one is only two years old, but in the year plus that we have been going to neighborhood parks we have met a ton of other young families that live within a couple of blocks of us. My daughter and I speak to whoever happens to be out when we're walking and it's been a fantastic way to get know our neighbors. There's no doubt in my mind by the time my child is 7 or 8 she will be able to go out to play with other neighborhood kids with minimal supervision.

Posted by: Hill Dad | June 25, 2007 3:41 PM | Report abuse

I grew in the wilderness of Michigan's Upper Penninsula - kids roamed, played, and explored in small packs. We covered miles of territory, and neighbors of all ages and class kept a watchful eye on us. Discipline was a community responsibility; handled by whomever witnessed your transgression.

I lived on the East Coast for a time, and dreaded the thought of trying to raise my son in a subdivision with predators, bullies, and drugs within a stone's throw. I am grateful work has relocated me to the midwest, and I bought a house on 10 acres in KY. Kids need space, good neighbors, and enough room to scream, shout and run without road-raged drivers, drive-by shootings, or corner dealers to fear.

My opinion of what would significantly improve city / subdivision life would be a return to "It takes a village to raise a child". I was monitored and disciplined by neighbors when needed, and I would hope that my neighbors would correct my son & notify me if they caught him doing something he should know better than to do; nowadays a neighbor is more likely to have you arrested than appreciate your attention to their precious child.

AMatz, KY

Posted by: amatz | June 25, 2007 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Do you really think that there were no sex offenders before the registry. Please terrible things have happened in the past, terrible things will happen now and in the future. You do the best you can to protect your kids, teach them about stranger danger and about good touches and bad touches from the people they know. Becuase lots of kids are molested and mistreated by poeple they know and their parents know as well. I know that some priests have molested kids, some coaches have had sex with their teenage players and in my area growing up a seemingly loving family man, boy scout leader who owned a summer camp was arrested and convicted on a miriad of sexual offenses against the boys in his care. But I will not let this keep my kids out of church, away from sports or home from camp. Just as the fact there is a sex offender in the neighborhood will not force me to keep my child inside all day. I cannot live in fear nor can a teach my kids that the only safe place is in our living room.

Posted by: TO NoVA | June 25, 2007 4:03 PM | Report abuse

The ironic thing is that kids are actually safer when it comes to child predators than they were back when we were kids.

The problem is that the ability of the media to report this stuff is so good that you end up hearing about EVERY SINGLE incident.

My cousin lives in the middle of no place in Indiana and she doesn't let her kids out to play because there are people on the sex offender registry in her "area". If she saw the sex offender list for my area she would probably barricade herself and her kids in the house.

Posted by: shocked dad | June 25, 2007 4:10 PM | Report abuse

"I'm a working adult and wouldn't dream of taking a walk outside in DC. I go from work to home as quickly as possible. When I drive, I keep my head down and my foot on the gas. When my contract is up, I'm leaving town ASAP."

Wow, what a sad life this must be. You really should leave DC, and head to some soul-less midwestern suburb.

Posted by: anon | June 25, 2007 4:11 PM | Report abuse

"I'm a working adult and wouldn't dream of taking a walk outside in DC. I go from work to home as quickly as possible. When I drive, I keep my head down and my foot on the gas. When my contract is up, I'm leaving town ASAP."

Wow, what a sad life this must be. You really should leave DC, and head to some soul-less midwestern suburb.

Posted by: anon | June 25, 2007 4:11 PM | Report abuse

This is not yet an issue for us but I've wondered about it as I see friends with older kids being what I consider over protective .
I grow up in Mt. Pleasant right off of Rock Creek Park. My sister and I were allowed out side with limited supervision from a relatively young age. We were given clear limits of were we could go on the block and as we got older (by 9 or 10 ?) were allowed with specific premission to go for bike rides on our own in Rock Creeek Park. We took public buses (including a transfer) home from our catholic school from probably age 8 on. By the time we were 12 we were allowed to take the bus/Metro to go out with friends Saturday afternoon to Georgetown shopping/hanging out or a movie. I think this really helped us develop into capable young adults. Does no one do this any more? Why not?
Mt. Pleasant wasn't a particularly safe neighborhood when I was elementary school aged (1977-1982?) but that's were we lived and our parents weren't going to keep us locked up inside, instead they slowly gave us freedom to explore our world in increments, gradually decreasing supervsion and broardening the area where we were allowed to go And there were lots of rules and precautions given , with frequent reminders.

I hope to give my kids at least some ability to run around unsupervised but I have many friends who show no signs of doing so and think I'm crazy!

Posted by: DC Native | June 25, 2007 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Re: I'm a working adult and wouldn't dream of taking a walk outside in DC. I go from work to home as quickly as possible. When I drive, I keep my head down and my foot on the gas.

So you're one of those suburbanites running me over in the crosswalk!

I walk all the time in DC as I don't have a car, and I love my 3 mile walk to work. Kids are out in my neighborhood all the time.

Working with homeless families and having adult friends who grew up in rough areas has taught me how low income families often have a more realistic sense of danger than middle class families who see danger at every turn. They often have neighbors who know them and look out for them, and they know whom to avoid.

People like the above poster would probably cross the street to avoid the homeless guy on my corner, not knowing that he's friendly and harmless. Many of the kids know him by name. He'd intervene in a second if someone laid a hand on a kid, not to mention that he's the eyes and ears of the neighborhood. If safety was simple, we'd all know "bad guys" on sight.

Posted by: DC resident | June 25, 2007 4:23 PM | Report abuse

When I lived in NYC, it was clear to me that New York kids get a lot of freedom in their neighborhood, which is often like a small town where people really know each other well. The suburban CVS clerk may or may not recognize you, but the bodega owner who's in his store morning noon and night knows you well. It's a great part of city life. NYC kids are taught how to handle themselves as they get old enough to hit the subway or bus on their own. A full subway car is (these days) a safe place to be on a Saturday afternoon, maybe safer than those pretty woods behind a suburban subdivision.

Posted by: DC resident -- one more thing | June 25, 2007 4:31 PM | Report abuse

I dunno.

Home isn't any safer either, what with all the cable channels, guys like Stern on the radio, and the internet.

When I was a kid, I could actually get beaten up by another kid and it was just part of youth, but nowadays that's assault, suspension from school, counseling, and a police record for the whoever might do that. Indeed, bullying and fighting seem to be almost pathologically hunted down and dealt with severely in my kid's school system.

Back then we had more freedom, but probably less wisdom to not abuse that freedom than kids today. Sure, I had less restrictions, but I did some stupid stuff.

I do think that society is turning kids into little adults sooner than when I was a kid, but then those same kids grow up to be twenty somethings that live at home longer than we would have dreamed, and take their time entering the true adult grind.

It probably all balances out. And if given a choice, I'd probably rather have had more freedom in my 20s than in my pre-teen years.

Posted by: Tez | June 25, 2007 4:32 PM | Report abuse

I think the world is much safer and improving. The old fogies need to restrain the urge to complain about how everything is falling apart, which is an utter lie. Kids now are safer and smarter than they ever have been, and this country has this wacky zero-tolerance for risk that is actually getting worse.

This does all boil down to kids having less freedom. I grew up on a farm too, and we did get to wander around all over God's green earth. But, clear up through high school, a shocking fraction of my friends were also getting hurt and killed in activities that had zero value.

Here in DC, my son has massive freedom--intellectual freedom. Access to most of the world's knowledge, wisdom, and culture are right at his fingertips.

Posted by: bkp | June 25, 2007 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Six years ago, when my daughter was in sixth grade, the school put together a class trip that required the kids to take the subway into downtown DC. The number of parents who freaked out at the very thought of their little darlings riding the big bad subway -- even with adult supervision -- was mind-boggling. I couldn't believe it. Meanwhile, my daughter had been riding on the subway with friends (and me in attendance) for years. The summer after sixth grade, she started riding on her own, albeit with adults to meet her coming and going. By the time she was in high school, I was no longer in attendance. You wouldn't have believed the number of parents who were freaked out about *that*.

Right now, my daughter -- who's now 18 -- and her best friend are traveling through Europe on their own, after having saved money from a p/t job for the past year. I'm incredibly proud of her independence and initiative.

Our jobs as parents is to raise kids who know how to live in the world and navigate it. If we wrap them in cotton bunting until they go to college, we may be keeping them safe -- but we will have failed them, too.

Posted by: NoVAsooz | June 25, 2007 7:19 PM | Report abuse

I grew up in the 'burbs and had the freedom to roam and ride bikes all day in the summer. Like previous posters, we had abusers, molesters and the like that were allowed to continue their reign of terror because folks didn't talk about such things.

My husband, son, and I lived in DC (Eastern Market) and enjoyed the idealized small town feel of the neighborhood: visiting the park several time each day to spend time with all of the other children and their families. Yes, there are areas in DC that are dangerous, but there are fantastic, warm neighborhoods, too, you just have to find them.

Yet, I think it is disingenuous that some posters (who are horrified at moving back to the Big City) say that midwestern or suburban towns are safer for their children than urban cities. That statement is usually uttered under the aegis of racism. Most, if not all of the horrific school and college shootings were in small, suburban, WASP towns. The vast majority of crystal methamphetamine production and use are in those same towns....not to mention the usual profile of child molesters.....

Posted by: Domestic Engineer | June 25, 2007 7:37 PM | Report abuse

in today's america, it really doesn't matter "where" we live because the lifestyle of the parent(s) is what dictates how the children evolve/grow into adults. people really should think about not having children if they are not prepared to sacrifice alot of time on a daily basis. the rewards are much greater when we keep the committment.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 25, 2007 8:16 PM | Report abuse

I moved from NoVA to Pittsburgh a few years ago, and I live in a quiet subdivision in a nice neighborhood. To my amazement, almost all the parents around here are adamant about ensuring thier children play only in their own yards, under constant direct adult supervision, if they are allowed outside at all. I let my three elementary-age kids roam around our cul-de-sac at their discretion, much as I did as a child - they are all good kids who have been taught to be resposible and careful. They have looked in vain for other kids to play with. It's very depressing.

I don't think the world is any more dangerous than it used to be, certainly not where I live -- it's just that there's more media hype over the bad things that happen, plus there's such a culture of overprotectiveness that there's almost a social stigma to letting your kids act like kids, as if you're being irresponsible as a parent if you let your child learn anything outside of a carefully structured and controlled environment. Parents need to grow up and let kids be kids.

Posted by: Ruth | June 25, 2007 8:45 PM | Report abuse

To those of you who think the problem of child predators is no worse now than it was a generation ago, I respectfully disagree. You are not accounting for this new gadget called the internet, and something about the internet that is very, very bad.

The internet has given predators a means of trading and collecting pornographic images as never before. (It has also given them a way to communicate with each other and validate each other on line.) The result is an explosion of new images, amid an exploding demand for new and more explicit images. The internet has incentivized collectors to obtain, or even manufacture, these new and explicit images so they may trade for more images. Decades ago, most of the traded child porn images were the same ones, made in Europe years and years ago. But any Customs or FBI agent involved in investigation child exploitatation cases (as we preferred to call them in the Justice Department) will tell you that he or she continues to see new, more disgusting images all the time. The internet becomes a breeding ground, or a sort of feeding ground, for people we would call "preferential sex offenders" who prefer children.

We had a case in the Office a few years ago in which a man photographed himself raping a baby. Thank God that wasn't my case, and I didn't have to look at those images. My friend who did is forever scarred -- she will never forget them and sometimes sees them after she closes her eyes at night. You won't ever see these images in the media because they are so sick, and it would be a crime to publish them. In the Office, we didn't even make copies of the stuff -- the defense lawyers would have to come in to look at them. I don't think most people have an understanding of what the internet can do, and has done, in the area of child exploitation. It's not just media hype. The media can't even report on how bad this stuff is.

So yes, the world is a lot more dangerous for kids than it was, and they are in a lot more danger from unknown people in the neighborhood who might see or interact with them regularly, aside from child predators who lurk in chat rooms (and as Chris Hansen has showed us, there are plenty of those). They are in danger from people they know, including family members or trusted neighbors, and from people who they don't know but who know them from their daily routines.

Let your kids be kids but keep them close and know who they're with. I recommend reading Gavin DeBecker's "The Gift of Fear and "Protecting the Gift" for useful tips on child safety and on educating your children in how to protect themselves. His main point is that we need not teach our kids paranoia, but we need to educate ourselves and them to listen to, and act on, internal instincts. In other words, if you think it's a little odd that Johnny's tennis coach wants to spend time with him at the coach's house, or take him to some out-of-town tournament, it is weird, so don't do it. Your child's safety is more important that not offending the tennis coach. DeBecker thinks we suppress our instincts, and our kids, because of various social norms that tell us it's rude to offend people.

Posted by: ExAUSA | June 25, 2007 9:34 PM | Report abuse

My husband and I grew up in Hudson County, NJ, right across the river from NYC. We constantly bemoan the lack of freedom our children have. We were able to walk or bike to our friends houses, there were parks to play in and basketball courts to play some ball, King Tut was played on the stoop, we played stickball and kick the can and it was all for the cost of a super pinky. My kids have to be ferried to all of their classes, practices, and sports events, which we have to pay for as well.

Posted by: sparks | June 25, 2007 11:28 PM | Report abuse

I too am one of those people who grew up with lots of freedom to roam, and to get into plenty of pre-teen / teenage trouble. Not much ready-made entertainment, so we created our own, sometimes with disastrous results. I mean, it was really, really liberating and exhilarating for those of us who survived!

In all seriousness, I can think of at least 10 kids from my Columbine-resembling high school class who were either killed or paralyzed before graduation. Bike-meets-car accidents, gun play, drowning in the Currier & Ives picture=perfect pond. So while I had a great time and learned a lot of independence, I don't romanticize the freedom of wide open spaces with lots of time on your hands.

Posted by: plains state girl | June 26, 2007 12:14 AM | Report abuse

My solution -- I bought my son a copy of "Dangerous Book for Boys" on the day it was published here. He's 12. It's the best book ever. Provide enough support to get you kid the things he/she needs, then leave them alone to figure out how to make a bow and arrow, make water balloons out of paper, read Shakepears, learn Morse code. Today, my son said " where's the closest dump." He needs to get some wheels for a go-cart. You have no idea how hard it is to find good, solid rubber (not plastic) wheels until you try to make a go cart from scratch. Now that's what summer is for...

Posted by: IMHO Mom | June 26, 2007 12:26 AM | Report abuse

So why not a Dangerous Book for Girls? Shouldn't our daughters have their share of bruises and bumps and survival skills, too?
(says she wistfully, remembering all those afternoons riding her bike in tight circles and up and down hills so fast it felt like flying, and climbing tall slippery rocks in the middle of rushing rivers...)

Posted by: Katja | June 26, 2007 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Katja! Yeah, I hope that Dangerous Book for Girls is forthcoming. As a high-strung kid, I was scared o'plenty, but somehow also managed to spend lots of time lying down in a bed of pine needles, jumping into fresh cut leaves, sledding down a bumpy hill, and hurdling off a high-pitched swing pumped as high as it could go.

Posted by: Sibling Spice | July 3, 2007 11:23 AM | Report abuse

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