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Are Parents Today More Mindful Or Paranoid?

The original title screen from the "ABC Afterschool Special" anthology series that debuted in 1972.
Wikimedia Commons
The original title screen from the "ABC Afterschool Special" anthology series that debuted in 1972.

You were probably a free-range kid.

You rode your bike around the neighborhood and walked to school alone. Your parents warned of the dangers – which you knew because you watched those creepy after-school specials on ABC. 

Today few Seattle kids play without parent supervision. Those who let their kids out of sight risk judgment – or having the cops show up because a neighbor complained.

Bill Radke on KUOW's Week In Reviewsuggested that parents today are more protective because they are also more aware of the dangers.

But Erica C. Barnett, who writes for The C Is For Crank, countered that parents are worried about the wrong things. Few kids are abducted, she said. (About 100 children kidnapped every year in the U.S. are also murdered, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.)

Kids are more likely to get hit by a car, she said. “To me that speaks to the need of safe routes to school.”

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "\"We watched her from the window, and we decided she seems responsible.\" - Alison Van Gorp on letting her almost 4-year-old play alone in the yard.", "style": "inset"}]]Radke challenged her: “But if your kid is unsupervised, isn’t he or she more likely to run out in front of a car?”

Knute Berger, also on the Week In Review panel, weighed in. “Kids aren’t going to learn about risk unless they deal with a certain level of risk,” he said. “That’s just part of being alive.”

Berger said that as a 10-year-old, he bused alone to the Pike Place Market to buy groceries. His mother told him not to play in the street or jaywalk, he said.

But Radke wasn’t convinced. “Once you’re aware of that worst-case scenario, how could a parent do anything else but keep their kid safe from that?”

Berger: “They can chill.”

Radke: “We are more anxious today, but we are also more involved, more mindful, more empathetic. If I were a kid, I would take me over my parents.”

Washington state doesn’t have a law for when kids may be left at home alone. A flyer from the state’s Department of Social and Health Services offers some guidance: Children younger than 10 should not be left on their own. Around 12, kids may be left home alone for an hour or two. And “babies and younger children should not be left alone even for a few minutes.”

But the decision is personal, the state says, and kids mature differently.

KUOW reached out to Alison Van Gorp, a Mount Baker mom who allows her almost 4-year-old daughter to play alone in the front yard.

Van Gorp read that children need more play time. She also feels their street is safe; there are about 25 kids who live on the block.

“We watched her from the window, and we decided she seems responsible,” Van Gorp said. “She’s playing with the neighbors, not crossing the street. She’s not wandering away; she seems fine.”

But she’s gotten judging looks, especially on walks when her daughter speeds ahead on her balance bike. Van Gorp tells her daughter she can ride as fast as she wants but must wait for mom at the corner.

“Half the people we pass are like, ‘Whoa, she’s awesome,’” she said. “The other half are staring at her like, ‘She’s going to get hurt.’”

Van Gorp said she believes the anxiety may stem from current parenting pressures.

“I think there’s this cultural phenomenon that parenting is this job,” Van Gorp said. “You read books and study and join PEPS and talk to everyone about the best thing – the best car seat, the right activities. Everything has to be this super important decision.”

She also feels that pressure and often questions if she’s making the right choices.

“Maybe that’s just the hard part – the questioning and reflection,” she said.