The perennially aired holiday film, Home Alone, features an eight year old whose parents accidentally leave him home from a family Christmas vacation. The boy manages to go shopping, do laundry and thwart would-be robbers all by himself, with slapstick tricks that delighted my own eight-year old son. That level of independence is clearly Hollywood fiction, perhaps even more so today than 25 years ago when the movie debuted.
Voters in a recent Public Opinion Strategies’ national survey do not express great confidence in children being allowed to operate independently. Twelve seem to be the magic age when voters told us they thought it was appropriate to allow children to undertake a number of activities without adult supervision. In fact, half of Americans advise not allowing elementary school age children to walk to school, play in a park, or generally be by themselves much at all.
There are a few predictable distinctions: moms tend to be more protective than fathers, offering older ages on average for each activity. Similarly, working parents are more likely to say children could handle these activities unsupervised at slightly younger ages than parents who are at home. But for the most part, what is more striking is how similarly adults respond no matter how old they are, whether or not they have children, whether they live in a rural or urban area, or a host of other variables.
That is despite the fact that a YouGov survey conducted in April showed that majorities of adults said when they were elementary school students they were allowed by their parents to walk to school alone (59 percent), spend the day playing in the neighborhood unsupervised (66 percent) go to a store alone (54 percent), or go to a park alone (54 percent). The one exception was adults under 30 who seemed to have been more sheltered.
A majority of Americans would actually go so far as to criminalize unsupervised play by the elementary school set. A Reason/Rupe survey asked Americans whether or not there should be a law that prohibits kids ages nine and under from playing at the park unsupervised – 68 percent said yes. More than two-in-five (43 percent) said the same if the law affected children twelve and under.
These survey respondents’ views are likely driven by good intensions and a concern for children’s safety. Seven-in-ten in the YouGov survey said that the world has become less safe for children since they were a child.
Yet, the pages of Psychology Today and parenting magazines are increasingly full of articles citing the unintended consequences of children never having the opportunity to play independently, solve problems and negotiate with other children away from the eyes of a nearby adult.
My son’s favorite books right now feature Henry Huggins , Beezus Quimby, and their friends on Klickitat Street in which the children essentially roam free, with only occasional parental interference. “Can I go to the park without you like they do in the story?” my son asked the other night after reading. I hesitated. Maybe this Christmas I give my kids the gift of freedom.