How much should kids be allowed to walk around?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

When I was a kid, my family lived in a middle-class suburb in New Jersey. I went to an Elementary School that was a little less than a mile away. I walked there everyday. So did all the other kids. I would see my friends walking by my house and I would go out and join them and we would walk to school together. The first week of kindergarten my dad walked me to school, to be sure that I knew the way. After that first week, I was on my own. I was 5 years old, so it was assumed I was old enough to get myself to school. And I did.

My oldest brother is 10 years older than I. When I was 6, he was 16. He owned several rifles. So did all his friends. They liked to hunt birds. They would meet at the corner outside of our house and walk to the woods, which were only one block away. They would sit on a dirt mound near the woods and they would shoot at the birds. Nowadays, people might freak out if they saw a group of teenagers walking around the neighborhood with rifles. Back then, it was not a big deal.

Parents nowadays keep close watch on their kids. Children do not walk to the school. Allowing a 5 year old to walk a mile to school would be considered reckless. Why the change? People sometimes reference things they heard on the news, a kidnapping, terrorists, serial killers. Some of the change is fashion, the parents trying to prove to other parents that they are good parents. This change in fashion might have originally been triggered by episodes of irrational hysteria, but such episodes make a lasting impact on fashion. It is also true that the suburb that I grew up is no longer as middle class as it used to be. When I was a kid every family owned their own home. Now I would guess that about 25% of the homes are owned by a corporation, and the family that lives there is merely renting the place. Economic insecurity has increased. These are national trends, but you can see the impact in the suburb where I grew up. The place has an uncomfortable edge that didn’t exist as recently as the late 80s, or maybe even the early 90s.

The suburb where I grew up had a sense of community that has been lost. It is a sense of community that is apparently still thriving in Japan:

In September, journalist Selena Hoy tackled the unique independence of Japanese children for CityLab, noting that kids in that country often venture onto public transit by themselves at age six or seven. She found the big difference between Japan and the U.S. to be an “unspoken” sense of community.

Needless to say, this loss of community is a tremendous burden for parents, as it greatly increases the amount of work necessary to raise a child. My parents raised 4 children. My dad was a photographer and my mom was a teacher. They had some freedom to work since us kids left home in the morning, went to school, played with friends in the afternoon, and only showed up at the house again in the evening. My parents got about 10 hours a day when they did not have to think about us. Parents raising kids today get no such luxury.

Anyone who wants to argue that we’ve had economic growth over the last century needs to subtract the loss of community from the estimates of human welfare. If that is hard to quantify, then economists should stop boasting about the amount of economic growth that has occurred. If you only count the good stuff, but none of the bad stuff, then you can argue that everything has gotten great, but your numbers are all fiction.

How parents should protect their kids continues to be a source of debate on the national scene:

A provision tucked deep within a gargantuan education bill passed in December clarifies the murky legal standing of free-range parenting—sort of. Advocates for the practice—that is, encouraging kids to build self-reliance skills by traveling their neighborhoods solo—are hailing the 101-word section as a victory, though the law still leaves parents and journeying kiddos subject to state and local guidelines.

The amendment is on page 857 of the Every Student Succeeds Act, and is the work of Mike Lee, the Republican senator from Utah who has become something of a political patron saint of anti-helicopter parenting. The provision declares that nothing will “prohibit a child from traveling to and from school on foot or by car, bus, or bike when the parents of the child have given permission.”(Note that the language does not specify how parents are to give legitimate permission.)

It also shields parents who allow their kids to travel “reasonably and safely to and from school by a means the parents believe is age appropriate” from civil or criminal charges.

The state and local exemption could be a killer in this case, and one lawyer consulted by StreetsBlogUSA called the amendment a “symbolic effort.” But the legislation proves that people are heeding the call of the free range movement, whose adherents believe that children need to be entrusted with independence in order to grow into independent adults. It also proves a point that Amanda Kolson Hurley highlighted on CityLab last year: Legislating when children are old enough to do anything is a tricky, tricky business.

Governments at all levels—city, state, and federal—have a patchwork of laws surrounding kids being alone. Some states [PDF] have legislation prohibiting leaving children under a certain age in homes by themselves. (The cut-off in North Carolina is ten, in Illinois, 14, and Maryland, eight.) But most leave the question of what constitutes too much trust in children up to local agencies and law enforcement.

But legislation regarding unsupervised kids is “intentionally vague, because there are so many contextual and fact-specific determinants” to each case, Vivek Sankaran, who directs the University of Michigan’s Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, told Kolson Hurley last year. “The downside is, it gives parents very little guidance about when they can get into trouble.”

And indeed, there are consequences. In April of last year, police picked up ten-year-old Rafi Metiev and his sister, six-year-old Dvora, while the kids were walking home from school in their D.C. suburb. It was the second time authorities had intercepted the children, so Child Protective Services (CPS) opened up a second investigation into their parents, Danielle and Alexander Metiev. Though the agency eventually dismissed both charges, the Metievs went on to sue CPS and the police department for Fourth Amendment violations. (That’s the one that deals with unreasonable searches and seizures.)

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