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 mother’s 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 the 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!

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

13 thoughts on “Free-range kids”

  1. Current US society is so thoroughly hostile to kids in so many ways. "Protecting" them is one of the ways we displace attention from that hostility.

  2. This isn't a sudden development, rather, it's been a slow erosion of the freedom kids have, with each tiny step seeming ever so obvious. I've been decrying the trend since I actually was a teenager thirty years ago. I was mostly pointing it out in other kids and in popular culture as I had parents that gave me lots of freedom so this wasn't angsty complaints about how my life was terrible. (I had plenty of angsty complaints about how my life was terrible and between suicidal levels of depression and undiagnosed autism I think they were justified, but this wasn't one of them.

    I talked about it about ten years ago with my father and he described how hard it is to let your child go out and do things knowing that they're going to get hurt. I don't have kids so I don't feel it viscerally, but I can understand it. I think it becomes harder as wealth increases (I mean as a society over time rather than in different stratifications of society but that may be true, too) as life itself becomes more valuable. There were all sorts of risks in life that were perfectly sensible to take a hundred years ago that would be stupid to take today. But it isn't impossible for parents to back off, just hard and they need to let go sometimes.

  3. So far as I can tell — and I'm going by Google, not on the basis of any knowledge of this family or the relevant agencies — the path that these kids were taking was a 30-40 minute walk through an semi-urbananized environment which followed a divided four lane state highway for about a half mile. It is not an urban wasteland, but I would not be comfortable having a 10 year old make that trip unescorted, much less a 10 year old supervising a 6 year old. If my kids were walking along that highway, I would be happy if the police picked them up. I therefore dissent from Prof. O'Hare on the question of whether bureaucrats in Montgomery County are clueless nitwit busybodies.

    I do not think that the concern about abduction or injury at the hands of strangers is utterly absurd — as Prof. O'Hare admits, he was mugged by older children on one occasion — but the more significant danger is that young children might be struck by a motor vehicle, which is a significant cause of death for that age group.

    It does not surprise me that Prof. O'Hare was not killed in a childhood accident: if he had been, he wouldn't be here to have posted his fond memories of having not been killed. A better question might be whether he remembers whether any children of his acquaintance were killed or severely injured in accidents while he was growing up. I suspect that at least a couple were, whether or not he remembers them.

    (By way of comparison, my grandfather was frequently left alone at home as a small child and was just fine. I recently discovered, however, that my grandfather had two cousins who died in a fire when left at home alone as very small children. No one in my family remembered their existence.)

    More generally, the contempt for the Montgomery County authorities seems to depend heavily on the misapprehension of the significance of small risks, which is a failing to which we human beings are particularly prone. So far as I can tell, the risk that an American child dies in an accident before reaching maturity is on the order of 1 in 500 to 1 in 1000. That is a small risk, to be sure, and smaller than the historic risk of the same thing. That said, that small risk is a substantial risk given the magnitude of the loss. If these parents were behaving in a fashion that caused that cumulative risk to their children to increase 10x-20x (i.e., from 0.05%-0.1% to .5%-2%), it is still highly probable that their children would survive (i.e., 98%-99.5% likely), but in my view the parents would be extremely irresponsible to do so.

  4. Do the "eyes on the street" still exist? I thought they were attached to stay-at-home mothers.

    I never worried about my kids being abducted etc. but i did worry about them being run over. When I was a kid cars would slow down as they came onto a residential street. It was assumed that kids had a right to play in the street. I never saw children my kids age playing in the street. If we want that to be the rule then it has to be formalized.

    1. That's a good question. There always seemed to be people around when I was a kid, and we even had "block parent" placards in some windows. As I recall, we played almost exclusively in the street. This was in suburban Orange County Ca. People might slow down, but if a car came, we'd just move over, it would pass, and we'd go back to the game. No biggie.

      I disagree a little with this, in that I think adult supervision is very important — but it can be at more of a distance. Children, like adults, are capable of extremely bad behavior, and I wouldn't want to romanticize it.

      Meanwhile, a good dog is worth more than pretty much any other kind of guardian, up to and including a fancy pants alarm system.

  5. Oh man, I dated a woman whose daughter went to the school at the end of her block, left, and then down a couple of hundred yards, not one street crossing required. The posh suburb's parents were so paranoid that the school ran a bus service to pick up kids who lived a few hundred yards away, but whose parents recoiled at the concept of walking to school. The bus stop for this route lay a half block up on the right. My inamorata at the time still drove her daughter the third of a mile to school, and sat in a 10-12-minute traffic jam of several hundred parents doing the same, every day. "If not let her walk the 8 minute daylight walk with other kids walking, why not let her walk to the bus stop 60 years outside your living room bay window, where you can see her at the stop?"

    Her response: "only poor kids take the bus".

    I dated another mother, more working class, who would driver her kids across the street, literally, because it was a BUSY street, to their school on the far side. Her judgment was similar, if nuanced from the other side: "the other parents would judge my kids as no-accounts, if they arrived on foot, and worse, they'd judge me as being a poor mother for letting them cross that busy street."

    It's mostly to do with media exaggerations and the Mega-Parenting push since the mid-90s, but there are also very strong elements of class. My current inamorata is working poor, no pretensions toward impressing people at cocktail parties, and she lets her kids go anywhere they damn well please, and wishes they would more often, rather than sitting around playing MineCraft. And filthy rich parents often do the same, partly because their leafy enclaves and gated beachfront communities are virtually immune to kidnapping other than by disgruntled ex, and partly because they feel social immunity from their choices. The hyper-vigilant parent, neither poor nor rich, seems to be wearing a sort of pink carnation of middle-class insecurity. With perhaps a tinge of racism or ethno-centrism: "if I let my kid walk to school or go on the bus, then she might have to suffer the company of those other sorts of children, the less desirable ones, so instead I'll drive her every morning and spend those 12-minutes in the school traffic jam TXTing, while my daughter is spared the burden of strolling and chatting with poorer people."

  6. Points well taken. A partial counterbalance is that thanks to computers, cell phones and social media, children from an early age often have complex webs of connections with their peers and the rest of the world that may be largely out of parental sight even if their bodies remain in view. That was far from true when most samefactsers were growing up. Apples and oranges, perhaps, but part of the same salad.

  7. I had the same experience growing up in NYC (well, Brooklyn) as did Mike, but I was robbed in Prospect Park, not Central Park. I sent this to my daughter-in-law for comment. Her response:

    "From my perspective, the main difference I imagine in street life between now and then is the number of people that are high on various drugs, coupled with the homelessness and untreated mental illness. In San Francisco, there is so much disturbing behavior on the street that I’m less worried about murder rate than about emotional trauma for the kids. But I guess that’s exactly the kind of protectiveness that the author refers to :-).

    "I can only imagine that traffic has gotten more intense too?

    "It really does depend on the neighborhood though. In our old house, I wouldn’t have let the kids walk to Franklin Square by themselves, whereas in Noe I would feel less concerned. But you never know what people would do if they saw unattended kids play in the park for an extended period of time, just like in Maryland…."

    So — it depends.

  8. Coupla ways to look at this – and we are just getting past the take ‘em everywhere stage, as parents. We did NOT raise free range children, we did what our neighborhood models of parenthood did. Which was, hover. Well, you know, the lone zebra on the savannah is lion lunch. A zebra in a herd of a thousand has a one in a thousand chance of being lunch. So if all the other parents are hovering, the Jesse Timmendequas of our nabe will see only our child as his Megan Kankas. The Markov absorbing state here is kid non-freedom.

    I am fully aware that anecdote is not anecdata. Yes, getting killed by a stranger is sort of like being struck by lightning. But we didn’t fight the social norms in our area. And did I mention Etan Patz, yet?

    Not to mention, one of our kids is a girl. Go read:

  9. Children are much safer than they were a generation ago. Parents pay them much more attention and don't let them roam the world unminded to make trouble. Perhaps the two trends are correlated.

  10. @balbertross. The two trends are definitely correlated. The question is whether either of them caused the other. Of this I am skeptical.

  11. As some others have noted, this really has been a gradual development. When I started school in the early 1980s, walking to school on my own was perfectly normal. Just about a decade later, returning from a few years abroad, my high school had issues with my parents letting me bike to school (I believe my parents had to indemnify the school or something). For crying out loud, I had been cycling through the streets Berlin for several years; to school, to meet with friends, or for a pick-up game of soccer.

    As irony has it, my kids right now have a lot more freedom even though we've been living in the original nanny state for the past year and a half. Not only am I allowed to let the girls walk to school by themselves, the teachers and the police actively encourage that (in fact, even the German Civil Code tells me that as a parent I have a responsibility to take my children's growing needs for independence and self-reliance into account). And that's still nothing compared to the neighboring Netherlands, where children routinely ride to school on their bicycles, often for several miles.

    It is worth noting that this is not just done out of sheer force of habit; the question of traffic safety has been studied extensively over here, and accidents involving children are not a rare exception. Yet studies have always found that it is ultimately safer to teach children to start walking to school at a young age. Part of the reason is that many children will still suffer accidents when you bring them to school in your car and that the increased car density in front of schools is an additional risk factor all of its own; but more importantly, children who do not actively participate in traffic on a daily basis do not adequately acquire the necessary habits that do keep them safe in the long run. In the end, there's nothing that will keep your children 100% safe, but there are better and worse ways to go about it. You are more likely to lose your child to cancer than to a traffic accident over here.

    Importantly, this does not mean that you should just toss your child out on the street and hope for the best. As it happens, the German Federal Statistical Office has extensive data on traffic accidents involving children. There were 73 deaths of children under 15 in 2012 and 58 in 2013. This includes children as pedestrians, children riding bicycles, and children as passengers in motor vehicles. In the US, 1168 children were killed in traffic accidents in 2012. This happens to be 16 times the number of fatalities in Germany during the same year, even though the US has only four times the population of Germany. Even accounting for the generally higher traffic-related death rate per capita in the US, this is high.

  12. [Continued from above.]

    While the number of accidents involving children slowly increases until the age of 11-12, where it stabilizes (earlier if you do not count bicycle accidents), there is no noticeable bump around the age of 6+ when children are commonly allowed to walk to school or visit friends on their own; letting children walk to school on their own does not seem to measurably increase their risk (though the first couple of years of them using a bike does). The most common reason for a pedestrian accident involving a child is the child either not looking before crossing a street or emerging from behind a parked car or other visual obstacle; these two causes combine for almost 90% of all cases [1]. In general, most accidents where the child is walking or riding a bike involve behavior that can be corrected through teaching or experience.

    Historically, the number of fatal traffic accidents involving children was much higher in Germany (over 2000 deaths in 1970 alone; pre-reunification, with much lower traffic density). Since then, a number of measures have been implemented that have constantly decreased the number of fatal accidents (as well as accidents overall). For example, traffic pedagogy is a big factor (i.e. children are being taught how to behave in traffic from a very young age). My older daughter will get her bicycle "license" either this year or next; this "license" has no actual legal significance, but there'll be a practice course in the schoolyard and the kids will be learning the rules of the road and will take theoretical and practical tests, the latter administered by real live police officers. Also, traffic calming measures have been introduced to make residential areas more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

    [1] This has an interesting relationship to the social norms surrounding jaywalking in Germany. While Germans – contrary to popular belief – do not religiously avoid jaywalking, it is very much frowned upon when children are present, so as not to set a bad example (to the point that somebody who's crossing the street against the light may be called out for it if there are children around).

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