Parents today are increasingly harassed or even arrested for leaving their kids in a car for two minutes to buy a coffee or allowing them to frolic unsupervised in a nearby playground. Yet it was not always like this. Generations ago—when the world was considerably more dangerous—children as young as eight were allowed to roam six miles away from home. Children’s freedom is a litmus test for community vibrancy. We won’t be able to improve one without boosting the other.
In contrast to growing anxieties, the rate of fatal injuries for children in the United States has been in steep decline for decades. There is no reason, however, to credit increased helicopter parenting and the vigilance of authority-contacting strangers for that decline. The rate is even lower in European countries where parents generally give their kids a much longer leash. Heck, Dutch kids don’t even wear helmets when they bike by themselves to school.
The difference is that childhood risks are individualized in the United States. Rather than redesign road systems to make dangerous interactions between cyclists and automobiles less likely—as the Dutch have done—we clad kids in padding and shame parents for not watching closely enough if little Johnny or Jane ends up on the business end of a Buick. Not only does this approach run completely contrary to what we’ve learned about the organization of safety (see nuclear power), but it fundamentally reshapes parents’ relationship to their neighbors. We police, rather than watch out for, one another. We punish and moralize instead of cooperate and empathize.
Calls made to the authorities about unsupervised kids are not made because of any real danger but because many Americans don’t want to have to keep an eye out for children who aren’t their own. As one mother complains about more “free range” parenting, “I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s kids.” Cops are used to punish parents for the sin of making other people worry about their offspring, of drawing them into community without their consent.
The individualization of much of the rest of American life makes the model of absolute parental responsibility only more difficult. Many of the parents who had law enforcement called on them faced difficult decisions: Let the kids play in the park or fail to show up for work; leave them in the car for twenty minutes or miss out on a job interview. Childcare is unaffordable because we don’t collectively provide for it. Current economic arrangements and policies individuate workers, giving little to no respect to the family or community as a social unit. On top of this, few Americans today have good enough relationships with neighbors to have them babysit.
It will not be easy to redirect American society toward a more communitarian, less individualized model of childrearing. Fortunately, studying how we’ve come to today’s world of neighborhoods full of strangers, near deserted suburban streets, and low levels of communal goodwill can teach us how to reverse the downward spiral.
It would be unreasonable to expect parents to embrace “free range” parenting overnight, given that decades of fear-based news reporting and home-based hermitting has led many to see danger lurking around every corner. But simple measures could allay some parental anxieties while giving children the freedom to play without parental surveillance. Teenagers already earn money ensuring safety at public pools. Why couldn’t “play lifeguards” staff local parks to supply sports equipment, tend to minor injuries, and help prevent major accidents? Why not locate children’s play areas among outdoor cafes, pubs, and other spaces amenable to adult relaxation, letting the eyes of other parents, retirees, and staff help keep kids safe? Such spaces already exist in many malls. Why couldn’t they be built elsewhere?
We could begin to weave back together the frayed communal web in many neighborhoods by redesigning zoning and building codes to encourage community interaction. Few American homes today have a front porch worth gathering on, and few neighborhoods contain places worth walking to. Building residential areas differently would help foster the kinds of social interactions that could restore neighbors’ trust in each other, growing social capital to a level where community members no longer treat keeping an eye out for someone’s kid as an onerous hardship.
No doubt thickening community life in this way would mean taking on new duties and responsibilities, many of which would feel uncomfortable at first. But individualization has been no different, coming with its own set of freedom-limiting burdens. The question is always “Which freedoms are worth what constraints?”
Past thick communities had their share of problems—often being patriarchal and overly demanding of conformity. These are serious issues that demand careful solutions. But there is no free lunch when it comes to the makeup of society. We are now seeing the costs of contemporary individualism: the loneliness of stay-at-home parents and older adults, the use of police to terrorize busy moms, and growing rates of depression. Nevertheless, a more pleasant and communitarian world for parents and children is possible—if we’re willing to collectively reevaluate and reconstruct our social lives.
Taylor Dotson is an assistant professor of science and technology studies at New Mexico Tech, author of Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World (MIT Press), and a researcher with Whoa Inc.