One of my saddest childhood memories involves the death of a fourth-grade friend of mine. My friend, aged nine, had gone for a walk by herself in her neighborhood. Well-taught in the art of crossing the street, she stopped at an intersection to allow a van to go by--but the van's driver kindly waved her across. Unfortunately, the car behind the van didn't see the little girl stepping off of the sidewalk, assumed that the van was having some sort of engine trouble, and pulled around it--hitting my friend and knocking her to the pavement. Though paramedics arrived with all speed, they could not save her.
In the past few years or so, the parenting model dubbed "helicopter parenting" has gone to some extremes--so much so that colleges have had to tell parents of newly-arriving freshmen to go home, already. As often happens, when the pendulum swings too far one way, it corrects; sometimes, it may even over-correct, and go too far in the opposite direction.
It is too early to say whether the parenting philosophy dubbed "free-range parenting" will be an over-correction. Perhaps it won't be. But when I hear parents say that nine years old is plenty old enough for a child to learn to navigate neighborhood streets alone within a few blocks' distance of their homes, I recall my friend's tragic death, and I wonder.
Free-range parenting tends to laugh at the cult of child safety and the fixation some parents seem to have on keeping their children from harm. It's true that some parental nightmares are ill-founded; while parents, for instance, fear stranger abductions, such abductions remain relatively rare (and the fact that one happened in this general area, and that the child's killer has never been found, doesn't change the statistics). Helicopter parents' involvement in their children's lives often goes way beyond basic safety questions, too, and into the realm of micromanagement.
But I have one major problem with free-range parenting, with the notion that kids don't need to learn basic safety rules or hold hands or stay close or walk with a parent or check in when they are out alone or take other age-appropriate safety measures. The problem is this:
The leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of two and twenty-four are accidents.
The majority of those are accidents involving cars; collisions between motor vehicles top the list, but accidents in which children are struck by cars go into the "car accident" category too. Drowning, fires, falls, and accidental poisoning are some of the other major causes of accidental death in young people; and there are an alarming number of other accidents, ranging from children killed when they climb on or pull a large piece of furniture or electronics on top of themselves, to fatal accidents involving bicycles or other wheeled equipment, a lack of proper safety gear including a helmet, and a head injury.
Does all of the above justify full-blown helicopter parenting? No; like all parenting extremes the helicopter parents all too easily go too far. But knowing the facts about children and accidents makes me cringe just a little when I hear parents scoff at the idea that a four- or five-year-old needs to hold an adult's hand in a crowded parking lot, or that a child under age ten ought to be with a parent on Halloween.
And that last is what prompts me to write this, even if I get some flack for it. A study done by the CDC a few years ago revealed that children under age fourteen are four times more likely to be hit by a car on Halloween night than on any other night of the year. The combination of excited kids dashing across streets with safety rules momentarily superseded by the thrill of the candy chase, busy adults driving children to parties or even just to neighborhoods where the houses are conveniently close together, dark skies, and so forth leads each year to a rise in the number of children injured or even killed as they seek Halloween loot. Adults are not immune, either, so accompanying one's child isn't a foolproof way to make sure nobody gets hit by a car--but at least adults aren't in danger of letting the evening's excitement suspend their judgment and cause them to dart between parked cars, cross in the middle of the road, or engage in similar risky behaviors.
Halloween is by far the only time when children are at risk of momentary bad judgment leading to accident, though. That's why, as much as I agree that some of the helicopter parenting has gone too far, I don't think replacing this with a totally hands-off approach is wise, either.
It's true that no parents can protect their children from every possible accident or injury; such things, sadly, often happen in the blink of an eye--and with parents close by. But some of the biggest dangers, from being hit by cars to drowning or being poisoned accidentally, can be addressed proactively and reasonably. Though my childhood friend was following safety rules, for example, the driver of the second car simply couldn't see her--but he would have seen a taller adult at her side.
There's a reason for childhood, for there to be time for a child to learn and grow and discover the adult world--and how to function safely and intelligently and rationally within it. There's a reason for parents, too: not "helicopter" parents or "free-range" parents, but just--parents. There is nothing wrong with believing that one's child is old enough to cross the street safely while still insisting that he wait to do so until he is older, taller, more mature, and less likely to act on impulse. Parenting doesn't fit into an easy little box with neat, tidy labels; it's a messy, confusing business, much of the time. But the rewards are as priceless as our children.