This will sound familiar to everyone within my generation, everyone older than me, and probably to plenty of people younger than me. When I was a kid, my sister and I left the house to play unsupervised every day. We met our friend Hyla, who is my dear friend to this day, and ran into the hills (which we, for some reason, called “the canyon”). The canyon was bordered by freight train tracks. It was criss-crossed by rabbit trails and bisected by a creek flowing with suburban run-off from the houses on top of the hill. We played in the canyon for hours – building forts, pretending to be “wilderness girls,” following trails – and other than the occasional skinned knee or slightly twisted ankle, never got hurt. We were home for dinner – responding to the familiar sound of Hyla’s mom sing-songing her name to call her home, to the “feeooweep!” of my mom’s piercing whistle punctuating the air, beckoning to Hilary and me. I don’t remember our parents ever telling us not to play, unsupervised, outside – in fact, more often than not, they were shooing us away, importuning us to get out of the house.
Are those days gone? I’m not a parent, but from what I read things have changed, and probably not for the better. Today’s Daily Read is long, but worth it for how author Kim Brooks, writing in Salon, sensitively details her experience with being arrested and charged for leaving her toddler in the car for five minutes while she ran into a store. Brooks is not looking for sympathy, but her story is wrenching. Parents and non-parents should both read it, especially for the end when Brooks asks important questions about how parenting and childhood seem to have changed. She wonders if we’ve become too paranoid, too controlling, and too afraid – to the point where leaving a child unsupervised for even just a few minutes becomes a matter for the criminal justice system, often triggered by a bystander who feels they are acting as a good samaritan.
I could write a great deal about this, but these Daily Read posts are supposed to be synopses, not treatises. I’ll simply add that as an anthropologist I recognize how US parenting differs quite dramatically from parenting in many other parts of the world. I also can see how the modern media environment has contributed to today’s fear-based parenting – but both of these topics are better left for another post.