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Utah recently passed legislation to “legalize the 80s” and let kids play outside again without fear of CPS being called on the parents. The new law essentially defined the difference between letting kids have independence and parental neglect, protecting the ability for kids to ride bikes and play outside alone.
I shared a video about this on Facebook and got a lot of responses that I didn’t expect. Surely, most parents would be sad that it had to be legislated but glad that kids would be free to play outside more… right?
I was wrong.
Instead I got responses like:
“At least if I helicopter parent, I know my kids are alive,”
“Oh great, so now all the pedophiles are just going to move to Utah and have a buffet of children to kidnap,”
“That was fine when we were kids but times are different now.”
These responses seem to center on a couple of ideas that I hope to kindly challenge:
- Things are inherently less safe in the world today.
- The only way to keep children safe is to constantly supervise them.
- Supervising children in this way doesn’t have any negative long-term effects.
If you agree with the three points above, I’d implore you to read through this article and consider the actual data!
How Overprotecting Kids is Harming Them
Of everything I’ve written over the years, this is one of the topics I feel the most strongly about because the way we are “protecting” kids is doing them a severe disservice in life.
Instead, I’d propose (and will defend) these counterpoints to the ideas above:
- The world is safer than it was when we were kids.
- Supervising children at all times does not necessarily keep them safe.
- There are long-term negative consequences to overprotecting and over-structuring kids and we are starting to see the results of structuring their lives too much.
- Hectic schedules are damaging families and creating more problems.
Don’t agree? Please read on and leave a thoughtful (and kind) comment as to why. But please, not until you read this article to the end…
But… Isn’t Being Safe Important?
Even one child kidnapped or murdered is one child too many… right?
Absolutely, and I’m certainly not arguing that we shouldn’t take measures to keep our children are safe. If life existed in a vacuum and it was simply a matter of a choice between a) the small chance of something bad happening to kids while playing outside; and b) a 0% chance of something bad happening under constant supervision, then my kids wouldn’t be outside climbing trees right now unsupervised while I write this post!
But that isn’t the case. These things don’t exist in a vacuum and the mentality that “I’d still rather keep them safe (inside) than take even the tiny risk that something could happen” has some unintended consequences.
More Dangerous Safer for Kids Now
By this statement I don’t just mean because children are less likely to die of childhood illness than in previous centuries. It is statistically safer for kids today that it ever has been in recorded history. Children are less likely to die or be kidnapped than ever before.
Let me repeat that:
Despite the fear-mongering in the media, children are LESS likely to be abducted, harmed, or murdered than ever before!
Kids Are Less Likely to Die From All Causes
Don’t believe me? Here’s some data from the CDC and FBI:
- Child mortality rates have fallen by over half … since 1990 (CDC).
- The homicide rate for kids under 14 is at an all-time low of 1.5 per 100,000 (Bureau of Justice).
- Meaning, for a child in the US today, the risk of death from all causes is 1 in 10,000, or 0.01 percent.
In fact, kids are exponentially more likely to die in a car accident while we’re driving them around to various activities than they are to be murdered!
If keeping kids safe is truly the goal, shouldn’t we reduce the number of activities we’re driving them to all the time? By homeschooling, we remove two car trips a day with our kids, statistically reducing their risk of death much more than we would by keeping them inside or supervising them at all times.
Children Are Less Likely to Be Abducted
But most parents aren’t necessarily worried about a child dying. The fear of abduction, disappearing without a trace, or assault are what keep us up at night. But perhaps these things shouldn’t worry us as much either:
- Missing persons reports have fallen 40% since 1997 while the population has risen 30% (FBI)
- 96% of these missing persons cases are children who have runaway from home
- Only 0.1% of actual missing persons cases are what we’d consider actual kidnapping
To put that in perspective, a child has a less than 1 in 300,000 chance of being kidnapped, and most of those cases are by a family member or non-custodial parent.
Since they have a 1 in 3,400 chance of choking to death, it seems we should be much more worried about hot dogs and grapes than letting kids play outside!
But, More Likely to Get in Trouble for Playing Outside
Sadly, laws like the Utah “Free Range” one are needed because the risk of someone calling CPS because a child is playing outside without direct parental supervision is much, much higher than the risk of a child actually getting hurt by doing so.
But Wait… Are Rates Declining Due to Keeping Kids Safer?
I know what you might be thinking…
Obviously these rates are declining precisely because we are keeping kids safer right?
That would make sense if rates of these crimes were declining only in children. But crime rates are declining in adults too! In fact, crime rates are down to at or below what they were in 1963. Ask your parents (or grandparents) how much they got to play outside in 1963… I’ll wait.
The Free Range Kids Controversy
The Utah “free range parenting bill” was in response to cases where an onlooker called CPS because a child was playing outside, often in his or her own yard. The bill separates the definitions of childhood play and neglect, saying that neglect does not include:
permitting a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities.
This means that children are now free to go to and from school by walking, running, or bicycling. They can also walk or bike to nearby stores and parks and play unattended in parks. The law prevents people from calling the police simply because a child is playing outside unsupervised.
If you don’t live in Utah and want to know what the laws are in your state, Lenore at Free Range Kids has a helpful list of laws by state.
What’s going on? Why are laws needed to protect a parent’s ability to decide safe limits for their child without fear of law enforcement getting involved?
I have (just a few) thoughts on that:
Media Over-Attention, Global News, and Fear
The constant media attention and focus on every negative event that happens has wired us to think that our kids are in much more danger than they actually are. Biologically, this makes sense. We’re wired to pay attention to threats to our children. But, the innate protectiveness that we have as parents is distorted by the 24-hour news cycle.
Here’s what I mean:
For most of history, we lived and stayed in relatively small geographic areas without much knowledge of the rest of the world. We knew about problems in our local area only, meaning that we heard about a lot less horrible events on a daily basis. Our brains are wired to pay attention to negative events because they can signal danger. However, since the events we heard about were within our local sphere we also had the ability to problem solve in our local area and help make it safer.
Now, we’re exposed to negative and scary events all the time through the news and social media and our brains haven’t yet adjusted to this change. The result is that our brains can be under the impression that things are really, really, bad and unsafe, when that’s not really the case.
News Makes Us Think Things Are Worse Than They Are
According to an article in Psychology Today, this negative news effect is causing us to believe things are worse than they are. The author reports some observations from a 1997 study on the psychological effect of TV news:
But what was more interesting was the effect that watching negative news had on peoples’ worries. We asked each participant to tell us what their main worry was at the time, and we then asked them to think about this worry during a structured interview. We found that those people who had watched the negative news bulletin spent more time thinking and talking about their worry and were more likely to catastrophise their worry than people in the other two groups. Catastrophizing is when you think about a worry so persistently that you begin to make it seem much worse than it was at the outset and much worse than it is in reality – a tendency to make “mountains out of molehills”!
How an Overprotected Childhood Harms Kids
Here’s a shocking reality:
We won’t always be there to protect our kids or solve their problems. Nor should we be.
Teachers (grade school through college professors) increasingly complain of children’s inability to solve even simple problems on their own. Parents intervene for everything from grades to discipline problems at school because the stakes are so high. But the result is a generation of grown children who still need their parents to decorate their dorms and manage their lives.
I get the desire to keep our kids safe and protected when they are young. But by doing so, are we making things tougher for them when they go out into the world? The answer may be yes.
Thinking about this… there is a 0% chance of children developing street smarts by sitting on the couch watching TV. Kids also aren’t learning problem solving or creativity by being protected from any difficult situations that may arise.
The following are some of the factors we need to consider in the risk/benefit analysis
Kids Are Connecting to Technology More than Nature
Children are spending more time on screens than ever. Recent surveys reveal that children spend half of the time outside that we did as kids. They also spend 56% more time looking at screens than playing outdoors.
On a strictly logical level, this creates problems in several ways:
- Sitting and watching a screen is a sedentary activity (and childhood obesity is on the rise).
- Eye doctors are seeing increased vision problems in children because of staring at a screen for too long. (Check out this podcast interview for more explanation on this.)
- Blue light from screens is affecting kids’ brains and circadian rhythms.
Yet many of us feel safer letting our kids watch TV or browse an iPad than climb a tree or ride a bike.
And scared about the rise of sex trafficking? Children are much more likely to be targeted on social media and later abducted than they are to be grabbed by a random stranger on the street. If this is our area of concern, and it certainly should be, we should be talking about keeping kids safe online and not as worried about keeping them from playing in the backyard.
Kids Need to Be Outside
Outdoor play during childhood serves a much bigger purpose than just being fun for kids. Of course, that is important too, but there are numerous psychological and physical benefits, including:
Indoor air can be hundreds of times more polluted than outdoor air and spending time outside is a great way to get some clean air.
Even just a few minutes outside helps kids get the Vitamin D they need for many aspects of health.
Bright Outdoor Light
Outdoor light is much brighter than indoor light and is important for health. Daytime bright light exposure, especially in the morning, helps regulate hormones, cortisol and circadian rhythm. In fact, studies show that it can help improve sleep.
It should go without saying, but as childhood obesity skyrockets, kids running around and getting exercise is a really good thing. The average 19 year old is as sedentary as a 60 year old according to a recent Johns Hopkins study.
I recently interviewed an occupational therapist who is helping correct many of the problems created by kids not playing outside enough. We keep babies upright and in high chairs, cribs and play pens. They don’t play outside in dirt or get sensory input from grass, or crawl and fall down enough. This is linked to more anxiety, lack of creativity, and other problems for older kids. The lack of vestibular system development is also leading to kids being clumsier and not having as much balance.
Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and author of Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children, explains:
Movement through active free play, especially outside, improves everything from creativity to academic success to emotional stability. Kids who don’t get to do this can have so many issues, from problems with emotional regulation—for example, they cry at the drop of a hat—to trouble holding a pencil, to touching other kids using too much force.
She recommends that children need three hours of outdoor play a day to be healthy. These three hours should not include organized sports or structured activities.
Children Need Unstructured Play
But kids can get all of those benefits even if we’re supervising them. So why let kids play alone?
Depriving them of opportunities to learn to take control of their own lives affects them psychologically. Think back to times in your childhood that pushed you just beyond your comfort zone. Times when you weren’t sure you could figure out a problem, or master a skill, or even just climb a tree. But then you did. The first time you rode a bike, or climbed a rope or tree?
That feeling of accomplishment is important to kids and we’re often protecting them from it.
Without these experiences, psychologists like Peter Gray argue that we are increasing “the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and various other mental disorders.”
Hanscom agrees, explaining that:
There’s so much value in kids creating play schemes on their own. Kids who are always told how to play have trouble thinking outside the box, and even answering freeform essay questions. Plus, true outdoor free play is like cross training, with the climbing, spinning, going upside down, and the like that adults don’t encourage but that are so valuable for their development.
Kids Need to Experience Risk & Frustration
Psychologists also increasingly report that today’s kids are terrified of everything from riding the bus to school alone to meeting new people. This is because they haven’t been taught that the world is a mostly safe place or been given the skills to navigate these minor challenges.
We all want to keep our kids from harm, but child psychologist David Elkind explains that sheltering them from every problem and minor injury has lifelong psychological implications.
Kids need to feel badly sometimes. We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope. There’s a lot to be said for taking risks, making mistakes and learning from them. Something kids won’t have the chance to do if they’re sheltered round the clock. You want your child to embrace, not shy away from the world he inhabits.
Statistically, we’re even afraid to let our kids help as much as they are able in the kitchen. We shelter them from the minor risk of using sharp knives as their skill level permits for fear of a minor cut, and yet, experience is the best teacher in this regard.
Norwegian researcher Ellen Hansen Sandseter found in her research that the relaxed approach to risk-taking and safety actually:
Keeps our children safer by honing their judgment about what they’re capable of. Children are drawn to the things we parents fear: high places, water, wandering far away, dangerous sharp tools. Our instinct is to keep them safe by childproofing their lives. But the most important safety protection you can give a child is to let them take… risks.
And To Experience Getting Feelings Hurt
Another benefit to unstructured play is that parents aren’t there to “rescue” a child any time he or she gets his feelings hurt. I get it, none of us like to see our children feel bad or get their feelings hurt, but they learn from these experiences too.
They learn things like:
- Not everyone in the world has the same opinion as me, and this is ok and should be respected. (Facebook is still behind on this trend, apparently.)
- If I am mean to other kids, they won’t want to play with me.
- I don’t always get to play the game I want or choose the activity at all times.
- Relationships require the ability to work through minor conflict and compromise.
But when parents jump in to facilitate intensive mediation for every minor infraction, kids don’t get to figure out how to work through frustrations like this on their own.
How We’re Behind the Rest of the World
If the safety data isn’t enough to convince you that perhaps we shelter our kids a little too much, consider the rest of the world. Our kids are going to become adults in a technologically connected world where they will be at a disadvantage compared to their global peers.
While our kids are being shuttled to and from activities and having structured playtime, other children in the world are:
- Riding the subway to school alone from age 4 (Japan)
- Biking to school or parks alone from age 4 (Netherlands)
- Using knives in the kitchen and to whittle sticks by kindergarten (Germany)
- Climbing trees and playing outside alone from age 3 (Sweden, which has the lowest rate of child injury in the world)
- Don’t start school until age 7 and have much longer recess when they do (Finland, where children routinely rank among the best in the world academically)
…And More Stressed Than The Rest of the World
Our desire to constantly protect, occupy and enrich our children has led to a lot of stressed out families. I’ve talked to so many parents who are stressed trying to keep up with all of the activities their kids participate in. And the kids are stressed too. Statistics show that anxiety and depression are on the rise in both children and adults. Of course there are many factors involved, but experts think that the hectic schedules many of us keep are part of the culprit.
But, what does the data say?
What Kids Really Need to Thrive
Psychologically, a few factors are really important to a child’s developing brain (and grown-up brains too, for that matter!):
- Getting enough sleep
- Having down time and unstructured play (not on a screen)
- Strong family relationships and a sense of community
Too many extracurricular activities take away from all three of these important factors for childhood development. For this reason, those above factors are my criteria for evaluating any extracurricular activity. Strong family relationships, downtime, and sleep are our top priorities and non-negotiables. Some activities are great, but if they start cutting into family time, down time or sleep, they aren’t worth it to us anymore.
Instituting this policy for evaluating things we add to our life has led to a lot happier kids (and adults). It has also, ironically, led to the kids having more interest in activities and learning them on their own. For instance, music lessons don’t fit into our schedule right now, but my 9-year-old found a book and online course and is teaching herself the ukulele. Our five-year-old is picking up gymnastics/tumbling for fun and cartwheels everywhere. All. Day. Long.
Kids are amazing sponges who can pick up new skills and show incredible creativity when we let them. Let’s give them the space to do it!
What If We Change the Environment & Bring Back Play
Again, I completely understand the desire to make sure our kids are safe. Unfortunately, restricting free play and constantly supervising them has some negative consequences as well. I’d like to propose that as parents, instead of restricting these activities, we work together to create safe ways for them to happen.
In Our Own Homes and Yards
Every location and family has different circumstances, but most of us should be able to find places in our yards or neighborhoods where children can play freely without supervision (or with minimal supervision). We can structure their lives a little less and let them experience boredom (and its fruit: creativity) a little more.
We can hold our tongue and not utter “be careful” every time they climb a tree or jump off something. Or encourage them to just go out and explore nature, ride a bike or climb something.
At our house, we’ve worked to create a backyard that keeps kids active and wanting to play outside. It also fosters free play with space and natural materials for them to build forts and create games to play.
And In Our Communities
Even better? We could choose (when possible) or create places where kids are safe to play on a larger scale. And we can get to know our neighbors to create a bigger area where kids can roam freely. Or we can find like-minded parents and create places and times when kids can just play by themselves.
And we can let go of the (unfounded) fear that if a child plays outside they are at high risk for being abducted or murdered… because the US is safer now that it was when we did all those things as kids.
Practical Steps to Raise Free Range Kids
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you of something that children instinctively know… that they need unsupervised free play to be healthy and happy. But finding time and space to let it happen can be tough, especially in a world where an unsupervised child is taboo.
It’s important to remember that child-directed play is vital to children’s emotional and intellectual development and to prioritize it. According to a 2007 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics ”
some play must remain entirely child driven, with parents either not present or as passive observers, because play builds some of the individual assets children need to develop and remain resilient.
These are ways we can help it happen…
Ask “What’s The Fear?”
Since it is our parental fear keeping kids from playing outside and unsupervised enough, perhaps we should turn our analysis inward. Angela Hanscom suggests that parents ask themselves what the root of the fear is and work to mitigate that without restricting kids from free play.
If the fear is a child being abducted, let the kids play in groups but without supervision. Or work to provide a safe place to play without supervision like a backyard or group of yards, a neighborhood, or even a park where a parent is hands-off and watching from a distance.
If the fear is being hit by a car, let’s teach our kids street smarts instead of keeping them away from all roads. After all, they’ll have to cross streets eventually!
Let Them Be Bored
When I said I was bored as a child, I usually got a response along the lines of “then you haven’t thought of anything interesting to do yet.” But many kids don’t get the chance to become bored these days. The only way this happens is if every moment is not spent bouncing back and forth from school to sports to activities and then to bed. And if every free moment is not spent in front of a screen.
It sounds counterintuitive when trying to create unscheduled play, but schedule time when there isn’t anywhere else to be or anything else to do.
Find a Place for Unstructured Play
Even if it is just the backyard. Or in areas without yards, finding places kids can roam and play. In the UK, there is a wildly popular (among children) adventure playground called “The Land.” It resembles a junkyard more than a playground and kids love it. Local residents created it to give children in a crowded and busy world a place to play and learn.
They start fires, jump on mattresses like trampolines, and build forts using hammers and nails and scrap lumber. They are loosely looked after by non-parent adults known as “playworkers” who don’t intervene but just keep an eye on the fire starting and fort building.
Find Ways to Keep Them Safe While They Play
I’ll admit, it is easier to have peace of mind when letting my kids play without supervision because there are enough of them that they are always in groups. We also live in an amazing neighborhood where many parents are on the same page and there is always a pack of kids roaming the streets together.
For safety, kids can stick together in groups to play or take a dog or a walkie talkie with them.
Teach Them Situational Awareness
This is a key point. I’m not suggesting we send our kids into any and every environment unsupervised. Not by a long shot. They shouldn’t play in parking lots or run around malls at a young age just because they need free play. Common sense is important and so is situational awareness. We need to teach children how to be aware of their surroundings and keep an eye out for actual danger by doing so ourselves.
This also means we have to let go of the fear when there isn’t any real danger so that we will notice when there actually is a problem.
At a basic level, this means teaching kids skills like crossing a street safely and being aware of surroundings (and staying close to us) in crowded places. It is also about teaching them that the world is a generally safe place (because it is) and letting them experience more of it.
Bottom Line: Shouldn’t the Parents Get to Decide?
Certainly, you don’t have to agree with me that your own children should play outside unsupervised. But the data doesn’t back up the idea that they aren’t safe when they do.
But at the end of the day, shouldn’t this decision be up to the judgement of the parents based on their own circumstances and location? Without the more real risk of CPS being called just because children are playing outside like most of us had the freedom to do as kids?
If the whole idea of this post creates a reaction anything along the lines of “parents who let their kids play unsupervised shouldn’t be allowed to be parents,” please consider the actual data and the fact that you’d see parents get in trouble or have their kids taken for something that isn’t actually unsafe!
I’d love to hear your (respectfully voiced) opinion in the comments. My stance is that I’m trying to raise responsible, problem-solving adults and I consider the risk of psychologically dwarfing them by protecting them from even minor problems to be a much bigger concern than the statistically almost nonexistent risk that they’ll be kidnapped if they aren’t supervised at all times.
We all want the best in life for our kids and that is precisely why I make sure my kids have a lot of unsupervised play time outside.
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What do you think? Agree or disagree? Please weigh in below, just keep it kind and avoid personal attacks and name calling, just like we all encourage our kids to do!
Not convinced? These are easy reads and provide more research and practical advice:
- Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes Strong, Confident, Capable Children
- Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)
- The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (and Themselves) by Doing Less
- The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids
- How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success