Parents should let kids live like ‘Stranger Things’ characters

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The Netflix hit “Stranger Things” stars a bizarre, otherworldly species. And no, I’m not talking about Demogorgons or demon birds. I’m talking about kids who ride bikes, solve problems, and fight monsters — all without their moms.

Why aren’t El, Will, Max, Dustin, Lucas and Mike ever seen in a minivan on their way to soccer? What kind of parent lets their kids battle evil without a phone for emergencies? And, dear God, where are their bike helmets?

Of course, “Stranger Things” is supernatural fiction, but it’s very realistic in one regard: Most ’80s kids, while not facing demons from the Upside Down, faced the fear, fun and freedom that came from a latchkey and a Schwinn. 

Fast forward to 2022. A survey this month found that just 10% of American parents with kids aged 7 to 9 ever let them stay home by themselves, and almost one in five said they wouldn’t even let their teens do that. In fact, the survey of 2,500 American parents commissioned by SafeHome.org revealed that parents don’t feel comfortable letting their kids walk to school, ride their bike to a friend’s place, or play in a park unsupervised until they are at least 12 years old.

Kids riding their bikes unsupervised barely raised an eyebrow during the “Stranger Things” era. Today, just 10% of American parents with kids aged 7 to 9 say they ever let their children stay home by themselves.
Kids riding their bikes unsupervised barely raised an eyebrow during the “Stranger Things” era. Today, just 10% of American parents with kids aged 7 to 9 say they ever let their children stay home by themselves.
©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Colle

If you, like me, walked to elementary school back in the day, these survey results are stunning. But the fact is, ever since the ’80s, parents have been putting their children on an increasingly tight leash, possibly sparked by the photos of missing children printed on milk cartons (without any acknowledgement that most missing kids are runaways or taken in divorce custody disputes). These sad portraits created an obsession with child abduction to the point where today’s parents don’t think their kids should be allowed to play unsupervised in their own front yard till age 10, according to a 2014 Rupe-Reason survey.

Looking back just a generation or two ago — the “Stranger Things” era — it was normal for a kid of 9, 10 or 11 to get a newspaper route. That job required not only walking or bicycling around the neighborhood, but schlepping a bundle of papers, sometimes starting before dawn. Newspaper boys and girls were even allowed to knock on strangers’ doors and ask the adults they encountered to pay their bills.

“Tracking” apps like Annabelle allow parents to digitally monitor their kids’ whereabouts.  Reassuring for adults — but overly controlling for their children.
“Tracking” apps like Annabelle allow parents to digitally monitor their kids’ whereabouts. Reassuring for adults — but overly controlling for their children.
Bark

In other words, America trusted kids’ stamina, smarts, maturity and responsibility — which, in turn, allowed them to build those qualities.

Today’s parents believe there are a few things kids should be exposed to at a young age. According to the survey, children should be able to have their own digital tablet at age 8. And 72% of parents said kids should be exposed to bulllying prevention materials before age 6.

In other words, kids are helpless babies till they hit double digits, but also born so evil or so easily victimized that if they aren’t steeped in anti-bullying material before first grade, they will hunt or be hunted.

No wonder today’s kids are so anxious and depressed! The stats are stark: Between just  2013 and 2017, the percent of pediatric patients with an anxiety diagnosis more than doubled, an AthenaHealth study found, while the number of teens experiencing depression increased 59% from 2007 to 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. You’d feel miserable, too, if you were constantly being underestimated.

So . . . is there a way back to the kind of era when adults trusted kids to be competent — the era when paperboys (and perhaps a Mind-Flayer) roamed the earth?

There is. Psychologists say that avoiding something out of fear gives it even more power to scare us. That means the more parents protect their kids from everyday childhood activities, like walking to school, or staying home alone for a bit, the more those activities become terrifying to both generations.

The antidote is to fight the fear forced onto families since the milk cartons. This summer, send the kids out to run an errand, or play outside. Parents should not be arrested or investigated for neglect if they empower their kids with some independence, as famously happened to the Meitivs of Maryland, investigated twice for letting their kids, 10 and 6, walk home from the park, or Natasha Felix of Chicago, who let her kids age 11, 9 and 5 play outside while she watched them from a window and got herself thrown onto the Illinois’ Child Abuse Registry for it. 

In the 1980s, missing kids started appearing on milk cartons, giving rise to a fear of child abduction. But most of the missing were runaways or victims of custody disputes.
In the 1980s, missing kids started appearing on milk cartons, giving rise to a fear of child abduction. But most of the missing were runaways or victims of custody disputes.
NCSC

In fact, states across the country should enact laws that allow kids “reasonable independence,” as Colorado, Utah, Texas and Oklahoma have done.

Make independence the new normal in your neighborhood by doing things like having a party with the adults inside, the kids outside. (Bonus: Both groups will have a better time.) Let the kids go shopping. Tell them to go skateboarding. When parents start giving their kids just a little independence, the anxiety loses its power.

It gets muscled out by pride.

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience, and founder of the Free-Range Kids movement. She also writes for Reason.com.



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