Laudable work here by Reason to collect and publish data showing how unpopular its own sympathies on this issue are. I wish more Internet pubs of every ideological stripe were as forthcoming.

The most recent example of a mom being arrested for child neglect for letting her kids play alone in the park happened just last week in Florida. The kids in that case ranged in age from six to eight; mom claims she was at a food bank at the time and couldn’t get back as quickly as she’d like. Oh well. Apparently Americans, especially Republicans, want government to play nanny here:

As the nation debates whether such parenting choices are acceptable or neglectful, the latest Reason-Rupe national telephone poll finds 82 percent of Americans believe the law should require children 9-years-old and younger to be supervised while playing in public parks. Just 17 percent of Americans think 9-year-olds should be able to play unsupervised at the park…

Democrats and Republicans tend to agree the law should require 6-year-olds and 9-year-olds be supervised at public parks, but Republicans (73%) are 15 points more likely than Democrats (58%) to also want the law to apply to 12 year-olds as well. Strong Republicans diverge from independent-leaning Republicans on this issue. Independent-leaning Republicans are actually as likely as Democrats (4 in 10) to say 12 year olds should be allowed to play in public parks unsupervised, compared to 26 percent of strong Republicans.

Americans who think government should promote traditional values are also more likely to say the law should require supervision of 12 year olds at public parks—69 to 55 percent of those who say government should not promote traditional values.

Americans are more relaxed about letting 12-year-olds play alone unsupervised in the park, but only a bit more. Sixty-three percent support making that illegal. It’s not just Republicans and social conservatives who favor requiring parental supervision either. Black voters, lower-income voters, and voters with less education are also more likely to support laws against unsupervised playing. My hunch is that that’s a function of environment: If you live in a poorer neighborhood, chances are that crime rates are higher and therefore you have more to fear in leaving your kid by himself outside. But Reason says I’m wrong. Apparently, lower-income and less-educated voters aren’t more likely than better-off and better-educated voters to say that unsupervised children are at risk. (However, lower-income and less-educated voters are less likely to believe that the media sensationalizes threats to kids.) Maybe their feelings on this are partly a function of their feelings about government generally. If you receive some form of government assistance, go figure that you trust government enough to give it more of a role in making sure kids aren’t being neglected by mom and dead in public spaces. Although, in that case, how to explain the support for legal restrictions here among otherwise anti-government Republicans?

Slate had an interesting piece a few weeks ago about “the shortening leash” of childhood, replete with a nifty interactive graph tracking changing attitudes about what age kids should be allowed to walk home from school. Their conclusion:

The most noticeable shift in the Slate survey happens between cohorts born in the 1980s and the 1990s, which is consistent with other national surveys. This is because, during the Reagan era, a panic about the dangers of childhood began to take hold. Citizen advocates lamented the perils of playgrounds, and lawsuits forced cities to get rid of what was deemed dangerous equipment. As Paula Fass chronicles in Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America, a few high-profile abduction cases set off a fear of child snatchers lurking on every corner. Ronald Reagan declared National Missing Children’s Day, and milk cartons began featuring missing children’s faces, making every breakfast an opportunity to fear the worst for your children.

Needless to say, the specific fears are overblown. A child is no more likely to be abducted by a stranger today than he was in the 1970s, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. Abductions have increased, but that’s almost entirely due to estranged spouses or parents kidnapping their own children. What has changed over the last 40 years is our sense of community. Mothers work, neighbors talk less, and the divorce rate began to creep upward in the 1970s and has remained at around 45 percent.

The less you feel you can trust your community to collectively supervise your kid when he’s out and about, the more inclined you might be to turn to government to fill part of the vacuum. There are a lot of implications for public policy in that phenomenon, and needless to say, they’re not limited to children.

Actually, this isn’t even the splashiest Reason poll published today. This one, exploring partisan and racial differences on the ol’ “should kids get a trophy for winning at sports or merely for participating?” question, is a sociology/economics seminar in the making.