There is a scene in a well-known movie where a 10-year old boy and his six-year old sister walk from their home in a small Alabama community some distance away into the center of town, where they go to see what their father, a lawyer, is up to.
They are accompanied only by a smallish 7-year old companion, and the three of them walk past grown-ups who wave and nod their heads, un-alarmed by seeing three children walking into town unsupervised.
The movie, set in 1932, came out 30 years later, and won accolades for, among many other things, its realistic portrayal of small-town life in a poor community during the Great Depression. At the time of the film’s debut, To Kill A Mockingbird, based on the novel of the same name by Harper Lee, hardly raised an eyebrow — at least not for its depiction of Atticus Finch’s apparently free-range children.
But times have definitely changed. When a couple in Silver Spring, Md., got in trouble for allowing their 10-year old son and his 6-year old sister to walk around their neighborhood unsupervised, it stirred up a hornet’s nest of debate.
The family has been accused of neglect after letting their children go alone to a park about a mile away on one occasion, and on other occasions to a playground and a park about 2 blocks away. In the most recent incident, the police picked up the children in a park a couple of blocks from home and turned them over to Children’s Protective Services, a social service agency.
In Maryland, according to news reports, the law prohibits children under 8 years old from being unattended in a house or a car, with no reference to outdoors. A person, under Maryland law, must be at least 13 to supervise a child who is less than 8.
The nationwide debate over free-range parenting raises questions about how much freedom children anywhere should have, and how much freedom exactly do parents have to decide when their kids need supervision.
Could it happen here?
Actually, anything can happen. For one thing, police departments are not under the control of the social service agency, the Alabama Department of Human Resources, so the possibility that an officer can pick up a child he deems to be unsafe is real.
But there is no law in Alabama that designates how old a child must be to walk about unsupervised, said Barry Spear, the public information manager for DHR in Montgomery. Parents are allowed to use discretion, Spear said.
“Its on an individual case basis,” he said. “You know, some children are more mature at a certain age than others, so there isn’t any set age in which a child is okay to be unattended by a parent.
“For instance, if somebody, like a neighbor, thought that a child was being left unattended by a parent, and that the child wasn’t old enough to be left alone, or should not have been left alone for whatever reason, they can make a report to the department and we would send somebody out to look into it to find out what the circumstances are and find out if there was any type of neglect that may be going on.”
The key in that is a determination of neglect, which might take many different forms, Spear said.
“It falls into a lot of categories as to whether a parent may or may not be neglectful to their child’s safety,” he said. “There are any number of things that a parent may be neglectful about. Allowing a young child that may not be prepared to be out mowing the yard could be considered neglectful. There’s a lot of different things.
“We operate based on reports. If somebody contacts us and reports that they suspect that a child is being abused and neglected then what we do is we make contact with that family and assess the situation and make a determination after we’ve done a full assessment.”
Spear said he is unaware of any cases where DHR removed a child in Alabama from his parents simply because the child was allowed to walk around or play unsupervised.“I’m not aware of any and I wouldn’t be able to speak to any specific cases if I was,” he said, adding that such cases might not come to his attention unless there was a specific inquiry.
So while there are times when the social service agencies would interfere in a parent’s decision to let their kids out of their sight, parents still basically have the freedom to choose whether to do so. And the choices parents make often say something about how they themselves were raised.
Many have stories to tell of how their parents gave them freedom within limits.
A more innocent time
“In kindergarten and first grade, I lived about half a mile from school in a medium-sized city,” said Karl Seitz of Birmingham. He started off in the late 1940s in Madison, Wisconsin. “I walked to school with a family of boys from down the block, the oldest of whom might have been 10. Coming home I might start out with a classmate or two, but I would be by myself for much of the walk.
“In fourth grade, age 9, in a smaller city [Winona, Minn.], I lived closer to school, but had to cross the main line of a railroad. I also had to watch out for my younger brother. In fifth grade, in a suburb of a major city [West Allis, Wisc., outside Milwaukee], I had my bike to get to school and used it to begin widening my range. By the time we left the suburb for the central city three years later, I was traveling miles from home, often on major highways.”
Seitz said that by age 11, he was a “latch-key child” whose parents trusted him to get where he needed to go, and to some extent, take care of himself without them when they were away.
“My parents were a 40-minute commute away in those pre-Interstate times,” he said. “I could ask for help from neighbors if necessary, although I don’t recall ever doing so. Not even the time I came home to find my brother had set fire to the kitchen wastebasket. I put out the fire and waited until my parents got home to tell them about it.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Seitz gave his own son the same kind of freedom he had. “My son was just as capable of such independence when he was growing up and his children are showing the same capacity. We often underestimate what children are capable of being and doing,” Seitz said.
Carol Nunnelley, on the other hand, said that when she grew up, in 1950s Montgomery, the rules of her parents’ house were different.
“I challenge the notion that young children wandering about without a responsible adult knowing where they are, what they’re doing, who is watching is ‘traditional,’ she said. “Not when I grew up decades ago,”
“While we spent time all around the neighborhood, we absolutely had to say where we were going, for how long and parents or grandparents would check to be sure it was okay with adults at the destination. And not all destinations and their adults were approved.
“At six, could we walk with other kids two blocks to school where someone was expecting us? Yes. Could we stay for hours in a park with no adult checking in? No way. From what I hear from my daughter’s generation, someone may be supervising the wandering kids, at least the lucky ones. It’s just not their own families.”
Coming forward in time, it seems that the notion that parents could safely leave their kids alone for a while was not particularly controversial.
“We lived in a small town in Florida [New Smyrna Beach] when I was a kid,” said Michaelle Chapman. “My mother had a semi-free range style when we were little that grew as we did. For example, she bought me a large basket for the front of my bike so that she could send me to the local mom-and-pop grocery store with a list when I was 9 or 10. By the time I was 11, I was allowed to ride to the downtown area, crossing railroad tracks and U.S. 1 to get there.
“We moved to a medium size city [Shreveport, La.] when I was in sixth grade, and I started riding the city bus to and from school in seventh grade. By the time I was 12 or so, I would take my two younger sisters on the bus to the downtown library. My mother always told us about staying away from strangers, but it was much more hypothetical than warnings parents give kids now.”
Chapman, however, personally witnessed a shift in how parents looked at how much freedom their children should have.
“I can pinpoint the time when things really changed,” she said. “It was the summer of 1981, when Adam Walsh was abducted from outside the Sears store in Hollywood, Fla. That mall, by the way, was right across from the Hollywood police headquarters. I was a reporter for the local newspaper and wrote some of the stories about Adam’s disappearance.
“That case changed the mindset of millions of parents because it got such widespread attention, thanks to John Walsh’s activism afterward. I had a very difficult time letting my daughter out of my sight when she was born a year later and still keep an eagle eye on my granddaughter, who is now 11. I don’t know if she is really in more danger than I was at the same age, but it certainly feels that way.”
Parents are worriers
Whether or not parents should be so worried that they don’t let their kids out of their sights, many will be. Especially, these days, said Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist at UAB.
“Parents are worriers,” he said. “We live in a world that has in many ways lost its innocence. Even events like 9/11 changed our fundamental approach to the unknown and our comfort level of keeping our kids within sight.
“When we are bombarded with every story of abduction, rape, murder, etc., it weighs in on our decision making. With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, emotionally, we often can’t separate things like the location of a tragic event happening to a child. We immediately go to ‘What if that were mine?’”
That emotional response is inevitable, Klapow said. “Its the law of saliency. Even one abduction, murder, molestation works on our fears… We really can’t emotionally separate the true statistical probability from the feeling of impending danger.”
For many parents that danger seems particularly real.“This one is tough for me,” said Jacqueline Byers of Trussville. “I absolutely see the danger of letting your children out of your sight in today’s world, but they have to develop independence and trust in their own instincts at some point.
“I let my 9- and 12-year old walk two doors down without me watching every step. There is a hill that inhibits my view. I make them call me when they arrive, just so I know they are safe. I also make them call me when they are leaving so that I know that for two minutes I need to have my alert up. I wait for them outside my home. As for being two blocks from their house…that isn’t going to happen in this family until there is a drivers license that goes along with it.”
Lori Chandler Pruitt grew up with parents who knew where the kids were and were able to count on neighbors to keep an eye out. She takes a similar view about letting kids roam today.
“I personally believe ages 6 and 10…especially girls…are too young to be in a park alone, mainly because they may not be able to completely discern a threat,” Pruitt said. “I always went to the park with my kids. I am of the generation of parents that let us hang out until the streetlight turned on…but we were older than 6 and 10 and traveled in neighborhood groups for the most part. These days, no kids are home so it is hard to find the neighborhood pack to run with.”
These days, even with technology that allows parents to keep up with their kids, GPS tracking devices, mobile phone apps, and so forth, parents “are trying to find that middle ground between letting them out of our sight but still keeping tabs on them,” Klapow said.
There are those who argue that a culture that demands such a close watch on kids will likely teach them to become more fearful than they should be.
“If we act from fear, fear is what we get and what we instill in our children,” said Katherine Biele, a former Birmingham resident now living in Utah.
That perspective is shared by parents and non-parents alike. Tess Roy, who grew up in the Birmingham area, but now lives in Seattle, said that the free-range movement “has more to recommend it than the stultifying ‘bell jar’ parenting I see so much of. My mother opened the door in the summertime, reminded us to be home for supper and prayed we would return with all of our limbs. The bogeyman was there then as it is now, we just weren’t taught to fear it was around every corner.”
Leah Haney Dueffer, who is a parent, wants her children to have more freedom.
“I am all for free-range parenting,” she said. “I’ve seen grandparents at the playground tell their grandchild, ‘If you climb up there again we’re leaving!’ And one woman grabbed my son not realizing he could get around on his own. I am now starting to let my 4-year-old play in our fenced-in backyard by himself for small periods of time while his brother naps.”
Klapow said that it is possible to raise kids who are not unduly fearful and to do so without throwing all caution to the wind.
“Teaching kids to be fearful is debilitating,” he said. ”Teaching kids to be vigilant, to have skills to discern danger, to have an action plan to keep them safe, is not debilitating.
“Parenting is about teaching kids how to take action, not how to be fearful. Fearful kids will make irrational decisions and not take action. Children who know what to do when a stranger approaches them will not be fearful.”
Sometimes the fear is inspired not by people who mean to do harm, but those supposedly with the best interests of the kids in mind. Roman Schauer’s family experienced such a situation in Willows, Calif.
“My wife let our daughter play in a park across the street and a half-block from the house while she watched from the front yard,” Schauer said. “She went inside to get a drink of water and returned to find our daughter being chased home by a someone claiming to be a representative of the city.
“She said she’d let us off with a warning and that the park ‘was not safe.’ The irony is she was willing to chase off a child playing at the park in the middle of the day, but not the people who she claims make the park unsafe. This incident has been, by far, the scariest thing that has happened to our children at any park.”
There is an important difference between so-called free-range parenting and freedom to play, Klapow said. “Kids can and should have free-play for normal healthy development. Free-range, on the other hand, may need to have evolving definitions.”
Whether parents should be sanctioned for letting their children play somewhere they are not, society is grappling with divergent views, Klapow said.
“This is where we are evolving as a society,” he said. “Free-range must be redefined. This is not going out into the woods or playing in the neighborhood like in the ‘60s or ‘70s. Parents do get concerned when they see kids roam. Legal sanctions should really be determined on the relative risk or safety issues children are put in.
“Again, we are changing our definitions of free-range. Sending a young child out to just play without access to a cellphone, or some sort of tether back home, is probably not advisable in this day and age. So as appealing and important as free-play is, we need to distinguish free-play from free-range.
“Allowing kids to do anything, to just play with no structure, is vitally important,” he said. “Free play is more important than free range. Your kids can play free in a 10×10.”
Know your child
In any case, parents need to understand their kids and what they can safely handle, basing decisions about the amount of freedom to give him on their specific children, said Spear of DHR.
“Parents should make decisions based on the maturity of their children as to whether they could be left unattended for a certain amount of time,” he said. “Certainly, its not something you could do with a very young child. But there’s a point where children’s behavior and the way that they act responsibly can help you make the decision how much freedom to give them.”