Is it time to leave our kids alone?

Kids have never been more supervised, or more anxious. So, is it time to back off?

When I was eight I would wake up on a Saturday morning and, after watching Hey Hey it’s Saturday on our one and only TV, I would say good-bye to my Mum and Dad and disappear into the bush behind our house. My friends Susan and Kate and I would spend hours riding bikes, scaling rocks, exploring the cliff fields. We would return for lunch (occasionally) and spend the afternoons roaming the neighbourhood only to return for dinner.

One of the mothers, Mrs Pimfrey, used to actually ring a gold school bell when it was time for her kids to come in. We all knew it signalled 5.30pm. We would tumble home with promises to meet up straight after breakfast the next day.

They were golden days, long and uncomplicated. There were no screens, no Tupperware containers of crackers, no helmets and most differently no supervision. We were safe. No one doubted that.

When I tell my children about it they can’t fathom being allowed to wander with only the eyes of the older brothers and

sisters to watch over us. They ask me what happened if someone fell over (we got back up) and weren’t we scared? (it never occurred to us) and where WERE our parents? (I’ll have to ask my mum the answer to that one). It sounds to them like a different universe. Not just a different generation.

The nostalgia of your childhood, though, is sometimes one you doubt. Were we really unsupervised? Were we really allowed to cross the streets alone? Were we really allowed to take 20c down to the corner store to buy a bag of Cobbers and a Wizz Fizz?  Well, yes, we were.

“It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation,” said Hanna Rosin in her remarkable essay in The Atlantic last week. The in-depth essay examined our pre-occupation with our children’s safety and questioned whether we were stripping our children of independence and risk taking to their detriment.

In the article Rosin wrote of how sheltered our children are. “When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.”

Bruce and Denise Morcombe

It’s not unusual. Children these days are supervised, structured, organized, hovered over. Their leisure time has decreased, their playtime has decreased, their anxiety has increased. But why? What is it us parents are afraid of?

Just last week the 60 Minutes feature on the case of Daniel Morcombe ignited the fears of parents in chat rooms around the country. Facebook feeds were filled with debates over just when you would let your child catch a bus alone, walk to school alone, visit the local shop alone. One mother’s claim she would be supervising her children until they were 18 generated over 100 likes.

A local Mum I know, who had been warily letting her nine-year old walk the two streets home from school to our cul-de-sac now he was in 4th grade, suddenly withdrew her permission for him to walk alone and asked me to keep an eye on him. Is it that fear-mongering on social media has leapt from our devices and begun to impact our lives?

Hanna Rosin writes:

“One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think."

The statistics show us over and over again the chances of child abduction in Australia rare.

In 2010, which is one year with available stats, the ABS tells us that just 15 children under 15 were murdered in Australia in 2010, out of more than four million children. But running through our heads are the names Daniel Morcombe, Madeline McCann, the Beaumont Children, Milly Dowler...

Blogger Crispin Hull writes, “the media-engendered fear of child abduction by a stranger is hurting our children. The vast majority of children are being denied the joy and social interaction of unstructured, unsupervised play because of this utterly unjustified climate of fear. That is going to cause long-term damage to children.”

For me it’s easy to let my children run freely down my safe cul-de-sac, knowing the eyes of every house are keeping watch over them. But to let go completely is to take a leap of faith in human kind that I for one am not quite sure I am ready to take alone.

How much unsupervised time do you feel comfortable with your kids having?