Family Matters

Are Your Kids Safe Alone at the Park?

Lenore Skenazy, an advocate of "free-range parenting" is proclaiming Saturday a self-declared international holiday: “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.”

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In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, Thursday marks one week since the release of a much talked about magazine cover with a lithe, svelte momma breast-feeding her very big-looking preschool-age son. TIME magazine’s startling cover image was prelude to a cover story about attachment parenting, which espouses baby-wearing and co-sleeping, among other things. In other words, attachment parents are very attached — in terms of proximity, among other things — to their kids.

You might call free-range parenting the antithesis of attachment parenting. Or perhaps the antidote. It’s not that free-rangers technically couldn’t be attachment parents, but they believe that once kids get old enough, it’s good — nay, essential — to let them be.

(MOREGrowing Up: Free-Range Kids or Smother Mother?)

Lenore Skenazy coined the phrase “free-range parenting.” In Free-Range Kids, her book and blogshe builds a case that children today are too coddled and protected. Parents worry about their children getting abducted, so they don’t let them play outside alone. As a result, kids everywhere are getting robbed of the essence of childhood — and the critical problem-solving skills refined by having to figure out things on your own, sans helicoptering parents. With summer approaching, Skenazy has proclaimed Saturday the third annual  “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.” Blasphemous, huh?

I, for one, plan on wholeheartedly celebrating this holiday. Will you join Skenazy and me? Before you pick up the phone to call Child Protective Services, hear her out.

By Lenore Skenazy

This Saturday at 10 a.m., it’s time for kids all over the country to do something they don’t usually do: play outside, unsupervised. That’s because May 19 is the third annual international “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day” (TOCTTPALTT).

Yes, yes, it’s a homemade holiday (by me). Remember when most childhood things were homemade, including the games kids played and the wiggly chalk lines?

There’s a lot to be said for that. Child development types are realizing play is the best thing for kids since the polio vaccine. But first, let’s get to what people will immediately say against it. “Kids outside, alone? What if they get hungry? Thirsty? Hurt?” And, of course, “WHAT ABOUT PREDATORS?”

Hungry and thirsty? They’re hungry and thirsty when they’re not at play — when they’re home, bored, eating for something to do. When kids are playing they actually forget to eat, they’re so jazzed. That’s why they were skinnier a generation ago. So don’t worry about hunger and thirst. And don’t worry too much about them getting hurt, either. Someone nearby will have a cell phone, so in the rare event assistance is needed, it can be summoned. No, the big fear is really predators.

Don’t worry about them either.

We’re so racked with predator panic these days, it’s almost hard for parents to imagine their kids NOT getting abducted. And yet, the crime rate is at a 40-year low. It’s actually lower now than when most of today’s parents were growing up — and playing outside! And don’t think the reason kids are safer now is because they’re under constant supervision.  ALL violent crime is down — including crimes against adults whom we do NOT lock inside on sweet, sunny days telling them it’s for their own good. So if our own loving parents let us play outside when crime was higher, why don’t we let our kids play outside now, when the crime rate is lower?

Because outdoor childhood has evaporated like a popsicle on the sidewalk. Even when I beg my boys, “Go outside! It’s a beautiful day!” they look out the window and grumble in a monotone, “No one’s out there.” And no one is. But I’m almost positive there’s a kid across the street glumly telling his mom, “No one’s out there.” Back everyone goes to Call of Duty (or its gateway drug, Club Penguin).

So Saturday’s holiday is a way to get all the neighborhood kids, age 7 or so and up, outside, at the park, at the same time: 10 a.m. That way, even the ones attending far-away magnet school will meet the locals – other kids they can play with on the weekends and throughout the summer. After one day of forced old-fashioned fun, they won’t need a holiday to get them out again, because they’ll have had a taste of the freedom we remember so nostalgically.

Why is it so important for kids to have those lazy, hazy days with absolutely nothing planned? Well, when kids have to come up with something fun to do, that’s problem solving. And when they have to make their own teams, that’s socialization. Is the ball in or out? That’s United Nations-level negotiating. And when they have to wait their turn?

They learn to wait their turn. Free play is the secret vitamin kids need – a vitamin we’ve mistakenly leached out.

Last year I got emails from several people who participated in TOCTTPALTT Day. My favorite was from a dad who got a bunch of families to participate. All the adults went off to play paintball while the nine kids stayed at the park with a middle-schooler named Jenna unofficially in charge.

The dad described what happened upon the parents’ return:

“We called for everyone to count off (a system we’d worked out, so we’d know immediately if someone is missing). The count went to nine, and then we hit a minor skid:  it then went to ten and eleven. This ended up having an explanation.

Apparently, while our children were playing Monster Ball (a mash-up of kickball and wiffle ball), a couple of neighborhood kids decided to join in, and Jenna had given them each a number immediately. The kids hung out all day, and this is where we found out something interesting: they’d all eaten their lunches together as well, even though the other two hadn’t brought any.  Jenna and a few others had split part of theirs so everybody got something to eat, and the same went with the ice cream truck money. No one had to tell them, or force anyone to include them, and they hadn’t just been left out. The kids took care of each other without question, or prodding.”

If that’s not reason enough to take your kids to the park and leave them there, maybe you’ve forgotten what summer is.

But my guess is you haven’t. Have a lovely holiday.