Returning to a State Near you – “The Streetlight Days!”

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I remember playing outside all summer long. I came home for lunch and dinner and then went back outside again. My mom didn’t always have a clear view of me and it didn’t seem to matter. In the evenings, the city street lights coming on was the signal to go home. That was around 8:30-9:00 p.m.

When I walked home by myself at 9:00 p.m., no one called the police to report neglect. No one reported my parents to child protective services. No other parent scolded me for being out too late. Police drove by occasionally and some even walked the neighborhood. This was in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. I wasn’t afraid and I was proud of myself for knowing and following my mother’s rule about being home by dark.

I learned responsibility, independence, competency, negotiation skills, and a taste of freedom. I learned how to make decisions and to determine what I wanted to do for ten hours a day. On rainy days, I often went to friend’s house or had a friend at my house. Sometimes I just wanted to jump in puddles although my mother wasn’t thrilled with that choice. Again, I decided what I wanted to do. I developed a great imagination and was rarely bored.

I’m thankful that I did not have a hovering mother. She allowed me to grow up with self-confidence and a great degree of independence. I raised my four children the same way. It was the 1980’s and they had the same rules that worked in the 50’s and 60’s. They knew to be home when the street lights came on and rarely broke that rule. Did anything change much in those twenty to thirty years? Not really, except for the milk cartons.

Stories of missing and abducted children seemed to rise in the late 1980’s. In fact, their sweet faces were on every milk carton which really frightened many parents. It frightened me too. In response, I gave my children a secret word to protect them from a possible stranger trying to abduct them. If a stranger approached and did not immediately say the secret word, they were to run away as fast as they could. I did not worry much because every one of my children were good runners!

Most of these abductions were by the child’s parent or other family member with no real explanation. Rarely was it listed as a stranger abduction, but it instilled enough fear into parents that the hover and helicopter movement kicked into high gear. I refused to let this kind of fear grip me or my children and to rob them of their independence and freedom. They still played outside and still had to be home at street light time. Times have changed and so have the rules.

An unfortunate side effect of this story is the lack of independence and freedom now foisted upon a generation of young people who are always watched. The heartbreaking stranger abduction of  those we’ve seen reported on the news keeps parents very wary of allowing too much freedom for fear of losing their most precious gift, their child. Understandably, some of you reading this may agree that hovering is a form of love and protection and will continue to do so at all costs.

There are also those who believe in allowing their children to experience the kind of growth and learning that comes from freedom and independence. This is, of course, based on a child’s maturity. As with most important child rearing decisions, it should be a matter of parental choice. A child walking to school, or a store alone, should not signal a call to the police. A young person taking a bus or subway should not signal parent neglect or abuse.  Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung in the other direction based on fears and emotion not necessarily facts.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, between 2012 and 2016, over 95% of all reported abductions were by family members. Typically, these are parents that do not have custody rights and take their children against court orders. It is a very sad story on many levels, but particularly for the child who may constantly be on the run with the parent who chose to take them. A smaller percentage represents children who runaway from home and are reported missing by families. Stranger abductions account for less than 1% but are still frightening, especially when they are reported via news media as if they are a regular occurrence.

Who gets to decide the best way to parent a child? Apart from the obvious abhorrent cases of child abuse or sex trafficking of young people, which should be reported, most parents “raise” or “grow” their children with great care.

There is a fine line between a healthy dose of independence and a constant, minute by minute accounting for the whereabouts of one’s child. In some cases, a child’s day is completely orchestrated for them. It begins with compulsory school for six to seven hours, after school team sports, supervised structured play activities, time robbing homework, and parent controlled access to the outside world via social media outlets. The only time a child has to herself is while she is sleeping. She is no doubt dreaming of what real freedom and independence looks and feels like.

It is no surprise that schools are dealing with lack of grit or perseverance. Why should our children demonstrate those skills when just about everything is done for them. They are watched, scheduled, and manipulated most of their waking hours.

It is almost unbelievable that a law was passed in Utah allowing kids to be kids. A LAW HAD TO BE PASSED that allows children to:

“walk, run or bike to and from school, travel to commercial or recreational facilities, play outside and remain at home unattended.” The law does not say what the “sufficient age” is.

“Under the law, state child-welfare authorities can no longer take children away from their parents if their kids are caught doing those various activities alone, as long as their kids are adequately fed, clothed and cared for.”  Washington Post article

This came about due to the taking of children, not by strangers, but by child protective services who accused parents of neglect when allowing their children to walk to or from school. Similar circumstances happened in several states. Utah decided it wouldn’t happen there as long as children are well cared for otherwise.

When we rob kids of the ability to navigate their world using their own powers of observation and reason, we tamper with their ability to do so in adult life. I enjoyed that opportunity and experience as a child and so did my children. I am now seeing my grandchildren enjoy those same opportunities even amid the scary “predator” stories out there.

Let me recommend a good place to start for parents and teachers who might be interested in letting go a bit.

Let Grow Project

Picture from Getty Images*

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