Should childhood be prisonhood?

How closely should parents watch their children, and should it be a crime to allow them some independence? This summer, at least two mothers found themselves under arrest after allowing their children to go to the park unattended after adults tipped police to a danger that many of us — myself included — frequently experienced in our own childhoods. Have we become too risk-averse to notice that the risks are almost negligible? Or have we made those risks negligible by demanding that childhood become a soft form of prisonhood in which children never get the opportunity to learn independence?


The Washington Post’s Petula Dvorak wrote about this disturbing trend of criminalizing these decisions, and wondered what exactly we are teaching children:

There are scary people out there. It is always a risk to let your children out of your sight. But truthfully, the most dangerous thing you do every day is drive anywhere with a child. About 300 kids are hurt daily in car accidents; an average of three are killed that way every day.

Yet I don’t see police pulling parents over and locking them up whenever they see someone in a car seat. But playing on the monkey bars without Mommy nearby? Book ’em!

“It’s a different world out there today. It’s not like when I was growing up, and we’d all play in an apple orchard and we were safe. Today, you just don’t know who’s out there,” said a lovely, well-meaning grandmother who was keeping an eagle-eye lookout on her grandchildren at a water park this summer while I let my kids do the water slides by themselves.

Yes, it is a different world. It’s a safer world. It just doesn’t feel like it because we know too much.

Dvorak acknowledges that it’s one thing to write that children should have more freedom, under wise supervision, and another thing entirely to actually put the plan into action. However, she did apply that thinking with her own two boys, and concludes that they learned more from that limited independence than even she thought they would:

The boys went to the corner store — a trip they’d walked a thousand times with me — with one of our cellphones and the dog. And I was a wreck the whole 20 minutes that I gave them on the phone stopwatch.

But they were 20 minutes that they talk about nearly every day. And those 495 feet were probably some of the most important steps they took in their short lives.


Heck, I used to do that on my bike all the time — ride to the grocery store. I even carried shopping lists to pick up items for my parents. This wasn’t in the “good old days” of yore, either, but in the early 1970s, when crime was escalating and social unrest was rampant. (Hey, just how old do you think I am, anyway?) It wasn’t in small-town America, either, but in suburban Los Angeles County. As I write in my column for The Fiscal Times, I had no idea my childhood was so … Dickensian. And like Dvorak’s two boys, those experiences taught me plenty, even when it produced some unpleasantness, or perhaps especially so:

The only incident that ever occurred in these horrible episodes of child labor came when I was eight years old; I had been making this run often enough to become a regular at the store. The cashier, who turned out to be the manager, told me I didn’t have enough money for the bill and sent me home to get more – even though I had given him more than enough cash to cover it.

My father put me in the car and drove back to the store to ask the manager to check his cash register, which he refused to do, and called me a liar when I told him what I had given him for the sale. My father blew his top, stormed out, and wrote an angry letter to the company. For months, Dad refused to allow me to go back to that store, although I often went to the Thrifty drugstore in the same corner shopping center. A few months later, that changed when an executive from the chain showed up at our door to bring us the three items I had attempted to purchase, the cash I had given the manager, and a face-to-face apology to me. “That man will not be around to be mean to you,” he assured me.

After that, I was back on the job, with my father’s blessing … and his shopping lists.

For years, I had thought that experience taught me many good lessons about life. I learned that I needed to be very deliberate when handing over cash at a register and know ahead of time the change I was due back, a skill that is all but out of date these days with debit cards. When disputes arose, I had to be honest about what had happened, and not be intimidated into silence just because the other person was older and had more authority than I did.

I learned, maybe for the first time and certainly in the most memorable fashion, that my father would defend me ferociously from anyone else’s nastiness. I knew — especially after that house visit from the executive — that I was as legitimate as any other customer putting cash down on the counter, even if all I was buying was a pound of coffee. (It also taught me that it was far better to be the object of Dad’s protection than his anger while shopping … but that’s a story about irresponsibility best left for another day.)


More than forty years later (but not much more than that, folks), I still recall that incident and the lessons learned from it. Would I have learned those eventually? Maybe, maybe not, and I never would have learned them at all when it counted had my parents refused to let me have a little bit of independence. Knowing what I do now, I am absolutely certain that it made my mother and father at least a little nervous, and they kept a close eye on my comings and goings in order to ensure that I didn’t get myself into serious trouble. Those experiences were valuable, and I wonder what we’re teaching the younger generations by denying them those opportunities now.

Update: Risk-averse, not -adverse. I’ve fixed it above.

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