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“Childhood isn’t what it used to be.”

girl on swing

This statement is often followed by an observation or perhaps a few statistics related to the way kids don't roam their neighborhoods the way they used to. While this fact is hard to dispute, the reasons why are highly debatable. Some suggest that technology and television have made nearby nature seem boring to today’s kids. Others blame it on parents who hover, the helicopter moms and dads who prefer to keep their progeny in close proximity. 

But giving kids the freedom to roam, or permission to spend time alone, is hardly a universally welcomed solution. In fact, what constitutes healthy supervision for today’s kids has become the subject of some of the most intense societal debates today.

Over the past few weeks, two mothers were arrested from Florida and South Carolina for child neglect has brought to a boil a debate that’s been bubbling up for some time. The first mother was arrested for allowing her 7-year-old son to walk to a park a half mile from his house, and the second mother was arrested when another parent called the police after seeing her 9-year-old daughter playing alone in a park near her place of employment (McDonald’s). The coverage of these stories have positioned these women as symbols of the hardships faced by the working poor (particularly single mothers), the shift from personal involvement to policing, and the change in neighborhoods from ones that are safe and “local” to ones that feel unfit for kids to play in without adult supervision.

Childcare website “care.com” asserts with authority, “Never let your child cross the street by themselves before age 10.” On the other hand, advocates of the “Free Range Kids” movement remind concerned parents that statistics do not support their fears of random abductions.  While advocates of both positions will likely continue to disagree, a broader conversation worth happening might be “what constitutes supervision for today’s parents”?

For previous generations, supervision may have seemed more black and white – you were either with your parent or not, supervised or not so much. Today, parents – even helicopter parents – often keep in intimate contact with their children via text. Today’s latchkey kids can Skype mom and dad in the office when they arrive home. While it’s true that many kids are better equipped to enable and disable “parent” controls on their iPad, Kindle or laptop than their moms and dads, these virtual limits can be set without a parent actually being there. And while even a decade ago, parents had to pre-view a TV show or browse a website to know if their child was accessing age-appropriate content, now they can consult CommonSense Media for a full review – along with the age listed for appropriate use/viewing.

“Are these controls enough or too much?” seems to be the crux of the question on the minds of cultural critics. But we think it’s just as important to view this heated debate as a sign of its importance to parenting culture, and thus, to kids’ lives.

But what does this mean for anyone operating in the kid and parent space?

  • Don’t assume you know what “everyone” thinks about safety. Assume ambiguity, and don’t expect that you can predict what your audience thinks. Even the most research-reliant parents can admit that they still worry about kidnappings (despite “knowing” that their child is more likely to be abducted or abused by someone they know). Despite the risks associated with putting kids’ personal info online, many parents continue to post pics of their little ones online. Beliefs and practices don’t always match.
  • Do treat parents with respect. Parenting is hard and while many staunch defenders of the “free range” or the child supervision camp will suggest that the other side is damaging children, remember that most parents live somewhere in the middle. And sometimes for good reason. Remember that many parents don’t have the choice to supervise “ideally.” As the stories of these single mothers suggest, childcare is complicated and expensive. Age doesn’t always tell the story of a child’s level of responsibility. And keep in mind that compromising on a child’s safety isn’t something that most parents would ever do if they had another choice.
  • Reconsider the “permissive/restrictive” continuum. Most parents have complex relationships to the rules they establish for their kids, and what they permit them to do, when, and why. Labeling parents “restrictive” or “permissive” in any category is likely to mask a much more complex reality. Parents often consider context (e.g., sometimes parents who are strict about sugar are even stricter about making sure their children doesn’t insult another parent who has just offered them a treat. Respecting parents’ choices and realities related to their child’s safety, health and well-being starts with understanding their lives.