I stumbled upon this 1979 checklist for parents who want their children to attend first grade. Perhaps the most interesting point on the list: “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?” As you might expect, this drew some commentary:
It’s amazing what a difference 30 years have made. Academically, that 1979 first grader (who also needed to be “six years, six months” old and “have two to five permanent or second teeth”) would have been considered right on target to start preschool. In terms of life skills, she’s heading for middle school, riding her two-wheeled bike and finding her own way home. It’s not surprising that I came to this link via Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids blog. What is surprising is just how shocking a jolt it is to realize how stark the difference is between then and now.
I’d probably be considered a free-range parent by today’s standards; I’ve allowed a 7-year-old to walk to a friend’s house unaccompanied and left a 9-year-old in charge of siblings. But the idea of a kindergartener walking “four to eight blocks” alone? Crossing streets? Turning corners? Even though I suspect I did it myself, I can’t get my head around it. I have two kindergarteners this year (and one will be 6 in just a few weeks), and I check on them if I let them walk solo to the bookstore’s bathroom. Yesterday, I watched one of them get lost in the grocery store, trying to go two aisles over to the freezer section, where she’d been not 30 seconds before. Two to four blocks?
But there it is, in the middle of the list, as though the ability to find your way around your world at 6 years old was quite ordinary. The country isn’t different (Skenazy points out that crime rates are actually lower overall than they were in 1979). We’re different, and not just as parents. A commenter to the post points out that her children’s school doesn’t allow students to walk home alone (even with an older sibling) until fifth grade. And it’s a difference most parents are aware of already. But to see it laid out so clearly is to remember that it wasn’t just my own mother who expected more from me than I expect from my own kids, but all the mothers. I’m not suggesting we loose our kindergarteners on our neighborhoods, and I don’t plan to send mine romping any further than the yard. But I will try to broaden my ideas of what else they’re capable of—besides math and reading—this year.
It reminds me of the story of the New York City mom who let her 9-year old kid ride the subway alone (after proper training and guidance) a few years ago and the controversy that generated.
Somewhat hidden in the explanation of this shift in parenting is an important set of statistics: crime rates are down. Not just down; rates in some big cities, like Chicago, have hit lows not seen for several decades. But, as I have noted, this is not the public perception. Instead, we live in a world where crime always seems to just lurk around the corner (perhaps even in the suburbs!), we hear about all sorts of gruesome outcomes (real outcomes and on shows like CSI), and we hear more and more about child abductions (think Amber Alerts). In these cases, the perceptions about crime are more important than the actual data.
An analogy might also help explain this shift. In books like Scorecasting and elsewhere, some argue that football teams should never punt because they could then score more points. What can hold back teams from going against the norm is that coaches don’t want to be held responsible if their team does go for it on fourth down and doesn’t make it. It is “safer” to punt in most circumstances because one then can’t be blamed for following conventional wisdom. Could parents operate in the same way – which parent wants to play the odds, that their child will be safe when going places alone, and risk being wrong? How would other parents and other members of the community view such parents whose children then do fall into trouble?