Free-Range Children Are Good for the Community

Even though crime has gone down in the U.S., parents are less likely to let their children walk alone, even to school. Will Doig discusses the argument that "free-roaming" children are a benefit to themselves and the larger community.
July 25, 2012, 6am PDT | Akemi Leung
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Lenore Skenazy remembers when she was able to walk to school by herself as a kindergartner in 1960s Illinois. Since then, crime has dropped to a 40-year low, and ironically, the distance that children are allowed to walk unsupervised has also gone down. Skenazy - "who's become famous for her anti-helicopter ways" - believes that parents should be less protective and should allow their children to wander a little more freely. Part of her reasoning is for the child's independence, but she also thinks that children help to enliven the community.

"Free-roaming kids" are an easy way to measure a city's health, according to Skenazy. Her popsicle test states, "If an 8-year-old child can go get a Popsicle from the store by themselves and finish it before they get home, that city is probably thriving." Will Doig explains that a child would only be able to do that in "a walkable, reasonably safe environment that has a good pedestrian infrastructure and where retail and residences are relatively intermixed."

Doig compares the American parents' trend of hyper-supervision over their own children to the more community-based variety of child supervision practiced in Tokyo. In Japan, parents aren't allowed to drop their children off by private car. Instead of school buses, money goes to crossing guards and young children walk to school in groups without parents. Who's watching them? Other community members, such as pedestrians and shopkeepers.

Nancy Pullen-Seufert, associate director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School, points out that U.S. communities have also successfully implemented walking school buses and bicycle trains, both of which involve close parental supervision. But Doig imagines that parents would hover over their children regardless of the infrastructure's safety. "The difference between a walking school but led by a chaperone and a group of 5-year-old Japanese kids getting to school on their own is the point itself."

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Published on Saturday, July 21, 2012 in Salon
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