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When Is It OK to Abandon Your Kids?

Yes, we let them climb on the playhouse in the backyard unsupervised! Sue us.

OK, OK, not abandon them per se. (Jeez, Jane, way to write a provocative and misleading headline just to get people to read the post.) But at what age is it appropriate for them to leave the confines of your house or backyard unsupervised? Seven? Nine? Fourteen?

As the fabulous Madeline Holler wrote about over on Strollerderby and as my fellow Babble Voices blogger Stefanie-Wilder Taylor discussed/debated last night on the Dr. Drew show, last Saturday was national “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There” Day, as declared by Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids.

Skenazy suggested that parents drop their kids aged 7 or older off at a local park and let them play with other kids, unsupervised, for a while, arguing that experiences like this are important for kids — to foster their independence and to let them create the kind of fond childhood memories many of us have of being on our own. No planned activities, no hovering parents.

Indeed, I have vivid and fond memories of playing with neighborhood kids when I was eight, nine, ten years old — usually with my 3-years-younger brother in tow — going from yard to yard. We had a neighborhood club, complete with lending library and a roadkill cemetery. (Yes, we’d scrape up dead birds and squirrels we found on the road and give them a proper burial. They never came back to life and went on bloody killing / nibbling / pecking sprees, to our knowledge.)

I also took epic solo bike rides — sans helmet, of course — all around the neighborhood and beyond. I told my parents, of course, gave them a general sense of when I’d be back. And then I took off. It was a marvelous feeling of freedom.

Why is it that this sort of thing is so much less common now — almost unheard of in many places — when violent crime rates have gone down since the 80s, when I (and many of you) were kids? AND when it’s not uncommon for kids as young as nine or ten to have cell phones?

I think it’s probably a combo of two things: the abundance of news and information we have access to via 24-hour news and the Internet, where we are constantly exposed to “worst-case scenario” incidents: kidnappings, injuries, etc. And what has become a culture of danger, I think: helmets and knee and elbow pads and car seats until our kids are in second grade. It’s actually illegal to leave your kids in your car while you run into the store in some places. (I remember waiting with my brother in the car, playing games or pretending to “drive” all the time when we were out with my mom while she ran errands.)

I’m not saying that any of these new precautions are bad in and of themselves; just that they contribute to a general culture of fear and a sense that our kids are fragile, and we need to do everything possible to protect them.

So I’m right there with Lenore Skenazy — in theory, anyway. But will I, in two or three years, have the cojones to drop my kids off at one of our neighborhood parks on their own? Or walk to school solo? (The elementary school they’ll be attending is just a few blocks away from our house.)

What’s frustrating is that the whole reluctance of today’s (American) parents to do this kind of thing is contagious. Because other people won’t do it, I feel like, well, they must be onto something, so I probably shouldn’t do it either. Or, I worry about what they’ll think of me. I even worry that they’ll try to intervene or “snitch” on me, like the adults who intervened when Skenazy put her nine-year-old on the subway alone to meet a friend’s parent waiting at another station to meet him.

But if we all agree to let go a little bit, and try to change the culture of fear and over-protectiveness, then we’ll get somewhere. (And our kids will have more fun at the park because they won’t be the only ones there! One advantage of siblings…)

Then again, check back in with me in two years when my kids are the “free-range” age Skenazy suggests, and we’ll see if I put my kids where my mouth is.

What about you? Do you let your kids do stuff on their own, or plan to when they’re a little older? Do you think Skenazy’s approach is a good one, or does she go too far?

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My book: DOUBLE TIME, my memoir of parenting twins, battling depression and chasing that ever-elusive work/home balance.

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