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UPDATED/Poll: 68 Percent of Americans Don’t Think 9-Year-Olds Should Play at the Park Unsupervised

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

Last month South Carolina mother Debra Harrell was arrested for letting her 9-year-old daughter play in a park unsupervised while she was at work. Since then numerous other parents have also been arrested for allowing their children to play in public places, both indoors and outside, unsupervised. (e.g. herehere,here)  

As the nation debates whether such parenting choices are acceptable or neglectful, the latest Reason-Rupe national telephone poll finds 68 percent of Americans believe the law should require children 9-years-old and younger to be supervised while playing in public parks. Just 28 percent of Americans think 9-year-olds should be able to play unsupervised at the park.

Fifty-three percent say 12-year olds should be allowed to play at public parks unsupervised, while 43 percent say the law should require them be supervised.

Democrats and Republicans tend to agree the law should require 6-year-olds and 9-year-olds be supervised at public parks, but Republicans (48%) are slightly more likely than Democrats (41%) 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 partisan Democrats (54 and 56%) to say 12 year olds should be allowed to play in public parks unsupervised, compared to 47 percent of partisan Republicans.

Americans who think government should promote traditional values are also more likely to say the law should require supervision of 9 year olds at public parks-74 to 62 percent of those who say government should not promote traditional values.

As income and education rise, Americans become more likely to say government should allow children to play at public parks unsupervised. For instance, only 21 percent of those with high school degrees or less think government ought to allow 9 year olds play at the park unsupervised, compared to 39 percent of those with college degrees.  Income reflects a similar pattern. While 19 percent of those making less than $30,000 a year take the permissive stance, 38 percent of those making over $90,000 a year agree (Interestingly, those with less education and income were not more likely to believe children face greater risks, suggesting something else explains their views.)

African Americans (82 percent) are more likely than white Americans (65 percent) and Hispanics (74 percent) to support such a law. 

Media Portrayal of Threats to Children

The news media and political leaders are often accused of over sensationalizing the threats to safety that children face in their day-to-day lives, yet 42 percent of Americans say the public discussion of the dangers children face is usually accurate and 29 percent think the dangers are usually under-estimated by media and politicians. Just over a quarter of the public, 27 percent, says threats are usually underestimated by the media and politicians.

Once again, those with more education and higher income are more likely to think the media over-sensationalizes threats to children. For instance, 17 percent of those with high school diplomas or less think the media overestimates the threat compared to 42 percent of post grads.  Similarly, 21 percent of those making less than $45,000 a year agree the media overestimates the risks children face, compared to 44 percent of those making more than $90,000 a year.

Perception of Physical Threats to Children

Although studies find physical threats to children are on the decline, fully 62 percent of Americans think children today face more threats to their physical safety than previous generations, while 30 percent think the threat level is the same, and only 7 percent think kids today face fewer threats.

Women are considerably more likely than men to say kids today face greater risk by a margin of 70 to 53 percent. (Women are also more likely to say threats are underestimated in the news media—35 percent to 23 percent).

Age also increases one’s belief that children are in greater danger today. For instance: 50 percent of 18-34 year olds say kids today face greater physical threats to their safety, compared to 62 percent of 35-54 year olds, and 73 percent of Americans over 55. White Americans (66%) are more likely than African-Americans (59%) and Hispanics (48%) to believe threats are greater today than when they were kids.

While those with more income and education are more likely to be permissive when it comes to government allowing children play in public parks, they are no more likely to believe children are safer today than in the past.

At What Age Should Children Be Allowed…

Reason-Rupe also asked Americans how old they thought a child should be before they are allowed to engage in a number of activities. The average (median) age given is shown below. On average, Americans think children 10 years and older should be allowed to play in the front of the house unsupervised. Americans think children should be 12-years-old before they are allowed to walk to and from school without an adult, wait in the car on a cool day for 5 minutes, be allowed to cook and mow the lawn. Americans think children shouldn't stay home alone until they are 13, babysit children until they are 14 and have a part-time job until they are 15. Parents of children or teens are not significantly different from Americans who don't currently have children or teens living in their homes.

Americans who believe all kids on a sports team should receive a trophy for participation tend to prefer children be older before they take on more responsibilities and independence, compared to those who think only the kids who win should receive trophies. For instance, those who think all kids should get trophies say a child should be 12 years old before being allowed to play in the front yard unsupervised or wait alone in the car for 5 minutes on a cool day, compared to age 10 among those who think only winners should get trophies.  Similarly, those who want all children to get trophies, think kids should be 1 year older before they are allowed to mow the law, stay home alone, babysit younger children, or have a part-time job, compared to those who want only the winners to get trophies.

Those who prefer a “larger government providing more services” tend to think children should be older before they are given greater autonomy and more responsibility, compared to those who prefer smaller government. For instance, those who prefer larger government think children should wait one more year before then are allowed to babysit younger children (15), have a part-time job (16), or play in the front yard unsupervised (11) compared to those who prefer smaller government.

Another way to compare those who want smaller or larger government is to compare their distribution of responses between the 25th-75th-percentile range (Interquartile range). Doing so (in the chart below) shows that those who prefer smaller government tend to prefer children be given more responsibilities and independence at earlier ages compared to those who prefer larger government.

The Reason-Rupe national telephone poll conducted live interviews with 1,000 adults on cell phones (500) and landlines (500) August 6-10, 2014. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3.7 percent and it was executed by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Toplines found here (pdf), HTML Toplines here, and crosstabs here (xls).

40. In your opinion, should parents be allowed to let their [6 year old children] play at public parks unsupervised? Or should the law require they be supervised at public parks?

• Unsupervised..............................................14%

• Require supervision....................................83%

• Don’t Know/Refused ....................................3%

• Total..........................................................100%

41. In your opinion, should parents be allowed to let their [9 year old children] play at public parks unsupervised? Or should the law require they be supervised at public parks?

• Unsupervised..............................................28%

• Require supervision....................................68%

• Don’t Know/Refused ....................................1%

• Total..........................................................100%

42. In your opinion, should parents be allowed to let their [12 year old children] play at public parks unsupervised? Or should the law require they be supervised at public parks?

• Unsupervised..............................................53%

• Require supervision....................................43%

• Don’t Know/Refused ....................................5%

• Total..........................................................100%

43. Compared to when you were growing up, do kids today face more threats to their physical safety, fewer threats to their physical safety, or is it about the same?

• More Threats..............................................62%

• Fewer Threats...............................................7%

• About the same..........................................30%

• Don’t Know/Refused ..................................<1%

• Total..........................................................100%

44. Thinking about how the news media and political leaders talk about the threats to safety that children face in their day-to-day lives…Do you think threats to children’s safety are usually over-estimated, usually under-estimated, or usually accurate?

• Usually Overestimated ...............................27%

• Usually Underestimated.............................29%

• Usually Accurate.........................................41%

• Don’t Know/Refused ....................................3%

• Total..........................................................100%

Now, please tell me at what age should children be allowed to…

45. Stay home alone? (ASKED OF FORM A)

• MEAN ............................................................13

• MEDIAN.........................................................13

• Never.......................................................... <1%

• Don’t Know/Refused ....................................1%

• Total..........................................................100%

46. Babysit younger children? (ASKED OF FORM A)

• MEAN ............................................................14

• MEDIAN.........................................................14

• Never............................................................ *%

• Don’t Know/Refused ....................................1%

• Total..........................................................100%

47. Walk to and from school without an adult? (ASKED OF FORM A)

• MEAN ............................................................12

• MEDIAN.........................................................12

• Never............................................................1%

• Don’t Know/Refused ....................................4%

• Total..........................................................100%

48. Wait in the car alone for 5 minutes on a cool day? (ASKED OF FORM A)

• MEAN ............................................................11

• MEDIAN.........................................................12

• Never............................................................5%

• Don’t Know/Refused ....................................3%

• Total..........................................................100%

49. Cook? (ASKED OF FORM B)

• MEAN ............................................................12

• MEDIAN.........................................................12

• Never.......................................................... <1%

• Don’t Know/Refused ....................................2%

• Total..........................................................100%

50. Mow the lawn? (ASKED OF FORM B)

• MEAN ............................................................12

• MEDIAN.........................................................12

• Never.......................................................... <1%

• Don’t Know/Refused ....................................2%

• Total..........................................................100%

51. Have a part-time job? (ASKED OF FORM B)

• MEAN ............................................................15

• MEDIAN.........................................................15

• Never.......................................................... <1%

• Don’t Know/Refused ..................................<1%

• Total..........................................................100%

52. Play in front of the house unsupervised? (ASKED OF FORM B)

• MEAN ............................................................11

• MEDIAN.........................................................10

• Never............................................................1%

• Don’t Know/Refused ....................................3%

• Total..........................................................100%

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  • Dan B.||

    The poll should have asked how common people think stranger abduction is. I bet it would have shown they think it's much more common than it actually is.

  • John Thacker||

    Most of the people who support this don't realize what it actually means to have something be illegal. People get arrested, and just being arrested, let alone convicted, can ruin your life.

  • ||

    People get arrested, and just being arrested, let alone convicted, can ruin your life.

    And that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the brain twisting required to grasp the notion that the most jailed generation(s), literally and figuratively, *in the land of the free* are the ones expected to pay off public debts.

    "No taxation without representation to FYTW." in less than 250 yrs.? I'm leaning strongly towards "Fail".

  • John Thacker||

    Some interesting relationships there. Republicans are more likely to believe that only winners should get trophies, and are more likely to believe in a small government, and several other things correlated with the pro "let them play alone" results.

    So the wing of pro-government strong Republicans must be *super* lopsided on this issue to produce the given result.

  • Slocum||

    Holy crap -- people in this country are even more out of their minds than I thought. Sixty-two percent of Americans think it should be illegal (not just a bad idea but illegal -- subject to parents being arrested, subject to children being grabbed by protective services) for 12-year-olds to play in the park by themselves!? This is actually one of the more depressing things I've read in Reason in a while (and that's saying something).

  • Scott Free||

    Exactly. I didn't read the question, or the results, on their face. The question is : Do you want criminal repercussions, similar to those that exist for leaving your child in a temperature appropriate locked car for 5 minutes while you run in to get dry cleaning, to be applied to a parent whose child is playing at the playground at the end of their block in a nice suburban neighborhood without parental supervision?

    And the answer to that is No.

  • Praetor||

    I grew up in a sparsely populated(about 17 families)suburb 2 miles outside of a town of 20,000 people in N central Indiana. My parents allowed me to hunt unsupervised in the neighborhood with a .22 cal rifle at the age of nine(1979). At 10 I was allowed to build and detonate black powder explosive devices, mostly unsupervised. You could say I was a statistical outlier, had understanding neighbors, negligent parents or all three. When my father, a family physician, caught me being reckless with black powder he took me to the burn ward at the local hospital to speak with an adult guilty of the same thing who severely burned his hands, chest, arms and face. I straightened up pretty damn quick. Many of you will probably think, "Here's an instance where CPS should have intervened!" or "That guy's parents should have been arrested.", but I never hurt myself or anyone else. Ultimately, parents are the best judges of their children's capacities for responsibility. I guarantee there are kids out there capable of matching or surpassing my understanding and respect for what I was allowed to do on my own let alone facing the "danger" of playing in a park, riding the subway or flying across the country all by themselves.

  • Ermengrabby||

    I think that the confusion between "I disagree" and "this behavior should be criminal" is widespread today. This is itself a serious problem.

    Would like to see a question asked along the lines of "Should parents allowed to make choices that I wouldn't make."

    And I agree that the results that 1) Republicans are less likely to trust kids and 2) People who want smaller government are more likely to trust their kids, suggests that Big Government/Social Conservative Republicans REALLY don't trust their kids.

    Sad.