An amazing poll keying off the Maryland case that Mary Katharine wrote about in which two kids ages six and 10 were taken into protective custody by the state after they were found — gasp — walking home from a local park unsupervised. What makes the poll amazing isn’t a sharp partisan or demographic split, as with most noteworthy polls. What makes it amazing is the lack of splits. In category after category — sex, race, age, party, affiliation, region, income, and so on — strong majorities say they wouldn’t allow a kid of elementary-school age to walk or play alone.
Maybe this is a righty-blog phenomenon and I’m guilty of epistemic closure, but every time I see a story about CPS cracking down on “free-range parents” written up online, the author’s attitude unfailingly is exasperated disbelief at how paranoid the state has become about unattended children. But that attitude is not shared by most of the public, and it’s especially not shared by most women. Of the five questions listed above, the lowest amount of opposition among women was 67 percent who said they wouldn’t let their pre-teen walk to school alone. (Fully 83 percent oppose letting a child that age use public transportation alone.) I guessed that young adults might be a bit more likely than older ones to grant kids some freedom, partly because they’re closer in age to the hypothetical pre-teen of the question and partly because many of them aren’t parents yet themselves. But no, they oppose “free-range parenting” about as strongly as older demographics do, and on the question of letting a pre-teen go to the park alone, they’re actually the least likely of the four age groups to approve of the idea. I also guessed that Republicans might be a bit more willing than Democrats to let their kids out unsupervised, since Republican parents are more likely to live in small towns and rural areas. Nope to that too: GOPers are actually less likely than Dems to let their kid go to the store or ride public transportation alone. Nor is this the only poll supporting the conclusion that Americans have gotten much more protective of their kids over time. Last August, a Reason poll found that 82 percent(!) wanted to make it actually illegal for a nine-year-old to play in a park unsupervised. Who knew that keeping kids on a short leash was the great uniting principle in our otherwise bitterly divided country?
The punchline — or rather, the first punchline — is that heavy majorities also told YouGov that they were allowed to do most of these things alone when they were kids. (The sole exception is riding public transportation alone, which only 30 percent were permitted to do.) Here, though, you do start to see some interesting demographic splits. In particular, young adults aged 18-29 are significantly less likely than older generations to say they were allowed to do things unsupervised, suggesting that widespread opposition to “free-range parenting” is recent but not very recent. Blacks and Latinos are much less likely than whites to say they were allowed to walk to school or the park alone or to play alone in the neighborhood; presumably that’s an artifact of perceptions of safety in urban versus rural environments, especially in poorer neighborhoods. And of course there’s a gender divide, with women far less likely to say they were allowed to do things unsupervised when they were young than men were. Mom and dad tend to be more protective of their little girls than their little boys. All of which brings us to the other punchline. Did you guess it? I bet you did:
Kids are safer today than they were in the fairly recent past, which makes public paranoia about granting them the same privileges that modern adults enjoyed as children seem even more ridiculous. But you can understand why perceptions would change towards thinking the world has gotten scarier when the facts on the ground say otherwise. As Americans’ sense of community has frayed and true-crime/news infotainment outlets have proliferated, go figure that parents feel less sure about what’s waiting around the next corner to confront their kid than they used to be. That’s how you get to 59 percent giving thumbs down to letting a 12-year-old walk to school alone.