Free-Range Kids

My late colleague Bob Leone used to teach that good managers don’t try to avoid risk, because it’s impossible: they try to choose the right risks.  Parents are violating this rule left and right, and clueless, nitwit, busybody bureaucrats in Montgomery County (not to mention other parents who call the cops instead of just asking a loose kid if he’s OK)  are acting out really anti-kid behavior, choosing the wrong risk trying to have none.

I grew up in New York City, 30th and 3rd in Manhattan; at the time, not a snotzy address.  I went to grade school a mile and a half away alone, from the age of 7, on the 3rd Avenue El and the 2nd Avenue bus, unless I decided to walk home afterward along one of those busy, commercial streets full of strangers and grownups doing all sorts of interesting things.  That walk could take a hour; there’s a lot for a kid to see in a real city. On the three blocks of 3rd N and S of my street were about 50 retail establishments, most of the proprietors of which knew me by sight if not by name.  I was completely safe in front of Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street”. When I was a baby, my mother would shop at the A&P on 3rd above 31st. She would park me in a pram on the sidewalk outside the store, usually with two or three others, tell her Irish Setter to lie down under the pram, and shop.  If anyone leaned over the pram to ogle me, a serious growl came up from underneath, but the kids without canine undersight weren’t at any risk either.

As I got older, I was allowed to cross one-way streets alone, which at that time limited me to about a square mile; I was instructed to always have a dime for pay phone call (never needed it).  When I figured out how to climb up to the El station and back down on the other side of 34th Street, my parents gave up and I was loose, at about eight.  From then on I was all over the city, which meant (for example) that I could go to the Museum of Natural History and hang out on my own, for hours and hours. One afternoon my friends and I had the idea to go to Coney Island on the subway; when I called home realizing I was about three hours late getting home and said where I was, I admit my mothers’ cool  was a little rumpled.  Once some big kids punched me in Central Park and took my wallet. I walked home three miles from my girlfriend’s house in Greenwich Village at all hours and never wanted to cross the street or hurry.

Of course, that was a different world; the murder rate (for example) in NY was only, um, wait a minute, the same as it is now!   Yes, there were a bad few years in between (though not especially bad regarding risks to kids), but it’s over.  Now middle-class parents are denying kids all they can learn making up games, learning to mediate their own disputes, watching real life, and deciding how to spend their time, which is a big risk to the kids: my students are much less confident trying new stuff than we were at their age. I believe it is because their lives have been locked down in parent-chauffered travel to parent-organized activities in order to avoid thethe truly trivial set of dangers that actually confront kids out on their own.  This web page has the relevant facts: parents, let your kids have a life, especially if you live in the city where there are places to actually walk to. No, they are not going to be abducted or injured by strangers, and you get your own life back!

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.