Free-Range Kids

Poll: Most Americans Want to Criminalize Pre-Teens Playing Unsupervised

"I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, anytime, that underestimates children's abilities more than we North Americans do today."

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Girl on swing
Capture Queen / Flickr

Correction: A previous version of this piece published results about 9- and 12-year-olds that reflected a subset of the poll's total sample. These numbers have been corrected and now reflect the total sample.

A whopping 68 percent of Americans think there should be a law that prohibits kids 9 and under from playing at the park unsupervised, despite the fact that most of them no doubt grew up doing just that.

What's more: 43 percent feel the same way about 12-year-olds. They would like to criminalize all pre-teenagers playing outside on their own (and, I guess, arrest their no-good parents).

Those are the results of a Reason/Rupe poll confirming that we have not only lost all confidence in our kids and our communities—we have lost all touch with reality.

"I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, anytime, that underestimates children's abilities more than we North Americans do today," says Boston College psychology professor emeritus Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, a book that advocates for more unsupervised play, not less.

In his book, Gray writes about a group of 13 kids who played several hours a day for four months without supervision, though they were observed by an anthropologist. "They organized activities, settled disputes, avoided danger, dealt with injuries, distributed goods… without adult intervention," he writes.

The kids ranged in age from 3 to 5.

Of course, those kids were allowed to play in the South Pacific, not South Carolina, where Debra Harrell was thrown in jail for having the audacity to believe her 9-year-old would be fine by herself at a popular playground teeming with activity. In another era, it not only would have been normal for a child to say, "Goodbye, mom!" and go off to spend a summer's day there, it would have been odd to consider that child "unsupervised." After all, she was surrounded by other kids, parents, and park personnel. Apparently now only a private security detail is considered safe enough.

Harrell's real crime was that she refused to indulge in inflated fears of abduction and insist her daughter never leave her side. While there are obviously many neighborhoods wrecked by crime where it makes more sense to keep kids close, the country at large is enjoying its lowest crime level in decades.

Too bad most people reject this reality. The Reason/Rupe Poll asked "Do kids today face more threats to their physical safety?" and a majority—62 percent—said yes. Perhaps that's because the majority of respondents also said they don't think the media or political leaders are overhyping the threats to our kids.

But they are. "One culprit is the 24 hour news cycle," said Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, when I asked him why so few kids are outside these days. Turn on cable TV, "and all you have to do is watch how they take a handful of terrible crimes against children and repeat that same handful over and over," he said. "And then they repeat the trial over and over, and so we're conditioned to live in a state of fear."

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Rationally understanding that we are living in very safe times is not enough to break the fear, he added.

So what is?

Experience. Through his Children and Nature Network, Louv urges families to gather in groups and go on hikes or even to that park down the street that Americans seem so afraid of. Once kids are outside with a bunch of other kids, they start to play. It just happens. Meanwhile, their parents stop imagining predators behind every bush because they are face to face with reality instead of Criminal Minds. They start to relax. It just happens.

Over time, they can gradually regain the confidence to let their kids go whoop and holler and have as much fun as they themselves did, back in the day.

Richard Florida, the urbanist and author of The Rise of the Creative Class, is one of the many parents today who recalls walking to school solo in first grade. He was in charge of walking his kindergarten brother the next year. The age that the Reason/Rupe respondents think kids should start walking to school without an adult is 12.

That's the seventh grade.

Florida has intensely fond memories of riding his bike "everywhere" by the time he was 10. Me too. You too, I'm guessing. Why would we deny that joy to our own kids? Especially when we're raising them in relatively safer times?

"Let your kids play in the park, for God's sake," Florida pleads. "We'll all be better for it."

Why should South Pacific toddlers have all the fun?