Unsupervised Children


(This 1122nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 23, 2012.)


Sue Freeman of Rochester, a partner with her husband in publishing books about hiking, biking and canoeing, wrote me recently about an interesting episode:


"Just yesterday I was doing a mindless job so I had the TV on for background noise. I don't even know what program it was, but they were lambasting a mother for letting her children play outside unsupervised. The mother defended herself saying that we all played unsupervised as kids and actual crime rates are now down despite what the media leads us to believe. They barely let her speak, instead berating her for child neglect. It was our media frenzy at its finest - a sad commentary on our current state of affairs. Kids aren't even allowed to walk to the school bus. I watch parents drive their kids down our quiet cul-de-sac road and wait with them in the car until the bus arrives. Those poor kids - held captive indoors."


Contrast this episode with the experiences many of us had as youngsters. As pre-teens we hiked miles away from home. We climbed trees: a group of us even constructed a tree house in an isolated woodlot. I rode my bike from Rochester alone to Conesus Lake and back several times and with a friend to Letchworth Park and Mendon Ponds. We swam in the Erie Canal and in local creeks. We organized and played our own baseball and football games. We made and bottled root beer and sold it to highway workmen. We took the bus downtown to movies and to buy candy to sell house-to-house and old scratched jukebox records for our personal collections.


None of those activities were supervised by adults. Our parents lived their lives while we lived ours.


Programs like Dateline and 48-Hours offer horrible true crime stories at an ever-increasing rate. Why? Because we love to feel threatened. As one result, parents today are convinced that their children are threatened by lurking pedophiles, rapists and thieves.


A recent survey showed that 43% of our children are not allowed to visit their closest park alone and 65% of adults view the world as a more dangerous place today. As a result, a generation of children is now staying indoors for longer periods of time and is restricted to going out only with a parent present.


But what is the real story?


Despite the worst downturn since the Great Depression 80 years ago, crime rates are dropping every year. Here is how Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor states it:


"The last time the crime rate for serious crime – murder, rape, robbery, assault – fell to these levels, gasoline cost 29 cents a gallon and the average income for a working American was $5,807.


"That was 1963.


"In the past 20 years, for instance, the murder rate in this country has dropped by almost half, from 9.8 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 5.0 in 2009. Meanwhile, robberies were down 10 percent in 2010 from the year before and 8 percent in 2009.


"The declines are not just a blip, say criminologists. Rather, they are the result of a host of changes that have fundamentally reversed the high-crime trends of the 1980s. And these changes have taken hold to such a degree that the drop in crime continued despite the recent recession."


James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist summarizes, "We are indeed a safer nation than 20 years ago."


What does this sociological information have to do with this nature column? The answer is simple: as we are over-protecting our youngsters, we are failing to give them opportunities to interact with the out-of-doors world on their own.


Many of these issues are raised by Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods, but I am also concerned here with our youth's ability to interact independently with the natural world. 


And interestingly, it is not just children who are affected by this restrictive attitude. Sue Freeman has also posted a fine commentary "Don't be Afraid to Go Hiking Alone." Aimed specifically at women, it offers both strong arguments for doing this and precautions you should consider. Her comments apply to children as well.


I urge parents not only to take your children out-of-doors but also to give them freedom to explore that out-of-doors on their own.-- Gerry Rising