Should grade-school aged children be allowed to walk home from the park without an adult?

I was just recently thinking about the topic of free-range parenting, comfort-addicted kids, and under-developed gross motor skills, and then today I noticed this news story:

‘Free-range’ Maryland parents hit with ‘unsubstantiated’ child neglect

The Maryland parents who believe in ‘free-range parenting’ and were investigated after police picked up their children — ages 6 and 10 — walking home alone from a park in January were reportedly found responsible for ‘unsubstantiated’ child neglect […]

Danielle and Alexander Meitiv say they will continue to allow their children to walk home together. The legal ramifications are unclear if the children are picked up by police again […]

In January, the Meitiv children were walking home from the park, which is about a mile from their Woodside Park neighborhood, in broad daylight and were stopped by police after someone reported seeing them.

The kids were returned to the home and police reportedly talked to the parents about the dangers of the world […]

CPS reportedly followed up and forced the parents to sign a safety plan acknowledging that they would not let the kids go unsupervised. Alexander told the paper he resisted at first, but CPS threatened that if they refused, the kids would be removed from the home.

Apparently the parents had taught them the way to walk home and the children were familiar with it. I would think six is too young to be a mile from home alone, but what about with an older sibling of ten? And it was daytime, not dark! This seems like it should have been fine. One wonders about the person who reported this to the police.

We all want to keep our children safe, no doubt about it. But children walk home from school all the time; should walking home from the park be considered any more dangerous?

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Musings on free-range parenting, comfort-addicted kids, and under-developed gross motor skills.

On President’s Day I had to go to work even though school was not in session. I was  working on an evaluation report while sitting in a meeting room with a group of other speech language pathologists and we got on the subject of “kids these days”…I was worrying aloud about the fact that even on days when the temperature is around 15 F, the children were still being kept in for “indoor recess”. I felt this was excessive and that we’d do better to keep old snow gear around for kids who didn’t bring theirs and to chuck ’em outside for 15-20 minutes every day. More than a few kids, though, don’t even want to go out.

I ask some of the kids about what they did over the weekend, if they went outside to play at all; some do, but a lot don’t. And to be truthful, my own children will moo about being sent outside sometimes; they’d often rather lounge around inside. I find this odd because as a kid, I couldn’t wait to get out the door, even in bad weather.

We seem to have created a perfect storm of hovering adults and kids who are weirdly addicted to comfort.

One of my colleagues whose age I’d estimate to be early thirties talked about being allowed to walk to and from school by about second grade. Another woman who is probably around my age shared some charming memories of the very rural farm community where she grew up; by the time she was seven years old, she’d wake up early on a summer morning, pack a sandwich and an apple in her knapsack, mount her pony (sans saddle) and head out for the day. She said she’d ride through people’s farms and through woods and end up several miles from home. She said it wasn’t all that unusual to fall off her pony and have to lead it to a tree stump to remount it because she was too little to get back on otherwise.

It’s hard to imagine any seven year old today even wanting to do that, let alone being allowed to.

Should we allow them to? Should we force them to? Should we be free range parents even if our kids would rather be house potatoes?

And it turns out, there are laws in some states about what age a child may be unsupervised:

Alabama None
Arizona None
Arkansas None
California None
Connecticut None
Florida None
Hawaii None
Idaho None
Illinois 14
Indiana None
Iowa None
Louisiana None
Maine None
Maryland 8
Massachusetts None
Minnesota None
Missouri None
Montana None
Nebraska None
Nevada None
New Hampshire None
New Jersey None
New Mexico 10
New York None
North Carolina 8
Ohio None
Oklahoma None
Oregon 10
Pennsylvania None
South Carolina None
South Dakota None
Texas None
Utah None
Wisconsin None

In Illinois, a child must be at least 14 before he may be unsupervised! In my state, a child can’t now be unsupervised until age 11.  By the time I was 11 in 1980, I was already babysitting other people’s kids.

I think one of the reasons we wanted to get outside so badly was because if we were inside, we were often made to do chores, and not just minor ones:

A study of the articles, advice and letters published in more than 300 parenting magazines between 1920 and 2006 has found that most modern-day children are only asked to take on trivial responsibilities, such as feeding a pet, clearing the table after dinner or tidying up after themselves.

“In earlier generations, children and adolescents were given meaningful opportunities to be responsible by contributing not only to their households but also to their larger communities,” said Markella Rutherford, assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and author of the new study, Children’s Autonomy and Responsibility: An Analysis of Child Rearing Advice.

Plus there wasn’t much to do inside since video game systems hadn’t really become commonplace, there were no electronic devices and the internet basically didn’t exist.

I’m not really sure what we can do about all this. On the one hand, I would not let a child as young as seven be gone outside all day. On the other hand, anecdotally children’s motor skills really are looking worse – perhaps from a lack of unsupervised outdoor playtime? There is a wonderful group that comes into some schools now called Motor Moms and Dads and pulls kids out into the hallways to work on gross motor skills with them because they lack some real foundational movement skills. I’m very grateful for our Motor Moms since they’re all volunteers, but could you imagine having needed such a group when we were children?

It’s worrisome and I don’t have any neat, tidy solutions to suggest.