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Leave Your Children at the Park and Your Paranoia at Bay

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The newly proclaimed "Take Your Children to the Park... and Leave Them There Day" (this Saturday, May 22) has a provocative name for a reason: to call attention to itself. Had Lenore Skenazy, who originally came up with the idea, named it, "Give Your Children A Chance To Gather Outside With Other Neighborhood Children and Engage in Unstructured, Unsupervised Play for an Hour or Two," I'm not sure that so many people would be taking notice.

The comments generated by press about the day (and there have been a lot of them!) expose a disturbing trend. Helicopter parenting, over-parenting, hyper-parenting--whatever you want to call it--has risen dramatically over the last two decades. It's a trend driven by fear--fear of crime, fear of injury, and even fear of children growing up to be failures. TIME Magazine's Nancy Gibbs notes,

" the 1990s something dramatic happened... From peace and prosperity, there arose fear and anxiety; crime went down, yet parents stopped letting kids out of their sight; the percentage of kids walking or biking to school dropped from 41% in 1969 to 13% in 2001. Death by injury has dropped more than 50% since 1980, yet parents lobbied to take the jungle gyms out of playgrounds... Among 6-to-8-year-olds, free playtime dropped 25% from 1981 to '97, and homework more than doubled."

So why don't parents want to let kids out of their sight? Why are so many appalled by the suggestion that they leave their children at the park with other neighborhood children? Here are some comments on our KaBOOM! Facebook fan page in reaction to a post about "Take Your Children to the Park... and Leave Them There Day" on our blog:

  • "welcome all the child predators. jeez what a bone-head idea"
  • "what type of pedophile came up with this assinine [sic] idea?"
  • "Parents that would leave your kids at the park shouldnt be parents."
  • "I guarantee... GUAR-AN-TEE... that something will go wrong. And this is very tragic."

The kind of paranoia that drives helicopter parenting, in the words of Bruce Schneier, is "worst-case thinking," which "involv[es] imagining the worst possible outcome and then acting as if it were a certainty. It substitutes imagination for thinking, speculation for risk analysis, and fear for reason." To hear helicopter parents tell it, crime is rampant, kidnappers run wild, and every stranger on the street is a potential child predator until proven otherwise .

Some parents, like Lenore Skenazy, have decided that enough is enough. The world has dangers, yes, but it is not the inherently evil, threatening place that so many parents make it out to be. Lenore and others are leading a counter-movement that also goes by many names--slow parenting, simple parenting, and free-range parenting, to name a few. It is a movement that recognizes the importance of allowing children freedom, within common-sense limits, to help them learn how to be self-reliant, solve problems, and think creatively.

As Lenore and others point out, rates of violent crime are lower today than they were in 1974, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and have been steadily declining since the 1990s. The odds of being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are about 1 in 1.5 million. And when it comes to child molestation, children are 80 to 90 percent more likely to be molested by someone they know (family member, teacher, etc.) than by a complete stranger.

And yet, people accuse Lenore of being "out of her tree."

All that she is asking, really, is that parents use their common sense. She is not issuing a decree that ALL parents MUST take their children to the park this Saturday and leave them there... or else! If your kids are under 7 or 8 years old, if the park is empty, if your local playground is a known hangout for drug dealers... don't leave them there!

Whatever your circumstances, just remember what this day is really all about: empowering, not endangering, children. Lenore is hoping that by making a big deal over leaving kids to play together at a park, it will, over time, cease to be a big deal.

As Lenore puts it,

"Clearly we are in the middle of a vicious cycle--there are no kids outside so I won't let MY kids outside, so there are no kids outside, so you don't let YOUR kids outside, so I don't let MY kids outside, etc., etc., etc--which is why the holiday (or whatever it is) is even necessary. It is a day to break the cycle. A day to get kids outside to meet each other and re-learn the lost art of playing!"

And if you ask me, depriving kids of play is a risk I'm not willing to take.

Encouragingly, for every parent who is appalled by this idea, there seems to be another parent who is supportive--or at least intrigued. Perhaps the tide is turning. Where do you fall?