In 2008, journalist Lenore Skenazy set the world on fire with an act that, thirty years ago, was unremarkable: she let her 9-year-old ride the subway alone. The public’s reaction ranged from applauding her choice, to calling her “insane” and her actions “just plain stupid.” Some called Skenazy a child abuser, while several media outlets dubbed her “America’s worst mom.”
Kids walking about in public without parental supervision lit up the presses again this past December, when suburban parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv allowed their children, ages six and ten, to walk home alone from a park within a mile of their house. Outraged neighbors contacted the police and Child Protective Services, who investigated the family and ultimately charged them with “unsubstantiated” child neglect. The Meitivs made the news again in April, when Child Protective Services seized their children as they were returning home from another nearby park by themselves.
Skenazy and Meitivs call themselves “free-range” parents, subscribing to a parenting philosophy that encourages children to have the freedom to explore and roam the world without the constant oversight of adults–in other words, how many parents today were raised. Yet free-range parenting is in stark contrast to the new norm – often dubbed “helicopter parenting” – which insists upon near-constant scheduling and supervision of children.
The norm has changed quickly, with one United Kingdom study showing that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, the percentage had dropped to 9. And now, it’s even lower. Another study has shown that in the United States, the percentage of students biking to school dropped from 41 percent in 1969 to 13 percent in 2001.
The reasons for the dramatic shift from a free-range to a closely-supervised childhood are just beginning to be studied and are not yet understood. Some theorize that the shift to overprotective parenting is a result of a less-cohesive community – due to divorce, single-parent families, and mothers working outside of the house – which has
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