This week in my Youth Development through Recreation and Sport course, we’ve been talking about the role of parents in children’s development. The discussion reminded me of a news story that was initially reported on in January 2015 in which parents were investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) for allowing their 10 year-old and six-year old to walk home alone (about 1 mile) from a local park. At the time the story broke, it was the third news story in less than a year that involved parents encountering trouble with the law for their children walking to or from local parks/playgrounds alone or playing in parks/playgrounds without a parent being present. These stories are originating in the United States, but they get press in Canada and Canadian parents’ reactions to the story have been varied. There are those who agree that children should be constantly supervised, those who describe themselves as “free range parents” who allow their children to explore and experience the world without constantly monitoring them, and those who would argue their beliefs and approach to their children’s freedom fits somewhere in between.
These types of stories surprised me. Part of my surprise that a parent is accused of neglect in a situation where his/her child is walking home from a park could be related to the freedom I had as a child. Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, I was allowed to bike around my neighbour and to friends’ houses by myself or with my younger sister, to walk or bike to the convenience store in my neighbourhood to get a treat with my allowance, and to go to my elementary school playground and play with my sister or friends. That freedom came with opportunities to assess and take risks, to make decisions, to explore, to problem solve, and to actually have adventures to share with my family when asked, “What did you do at the playground today?” No one interpreted my sister and I playing at the playground by ourselves as my parents being neglectful. Doing these things was considered as “normal”.
News stories like the recent one about the Meitiv family who had their children, age 10 and 6, picked up and delivered home in a police cruiser midway through their 1-mile walk home from the park indicate – as Petula Dvorak, columnist with the The Washington Post suggests – that there has been a cultural shift in criminalizing childhood independence. This shift, I believe, comes with a significant consequence to children’s leisure and recreation behaviours.
Increasing Barriers to Children’s Play, Leisure, and Recreation
Some children face a number of barriers to accessing recreation and leisure pursuits. They may be limited to activities or experiences in which their parent(s) can afford to financially support or by their parents’ ability to transport them to facilities for programs. Some parents have irregular work schedules or travel frequently and can’t consistently support children’s regular participation in organized programs. What happens when children are also limited from using recreation resources in their neighbourhoods or communities unless they are supervised at all times? Will stories of parents being scrutinized for allowing their children to walk or bike to parks or playgrounds in their area contribute to parents feeling increasingly uncomfortable with allowing or encouraging children to play independently?
Before the story was over for the Meitiv family, they were found responsible, in March 2015, for “unsubstantiated” child neglect meaning CPS would keep a file on the children for five years. Then, in April 2015, their children were picked up a second time from a local park. A happy ending of sorts came in June 2015, when they were cleared of all neglect charges and CPS revised its policy. Children will not be considered neglected without evidence that while unsupervised, the child has been harmed or placed at substantial risk of being harmed.
Reconciling the Mixed Messages
I wonder how we, as a society, can expect to have success with efforts such as active transportation (e.g., kids walking or biking to school) if we also communicate that it is not appropriate for children to walk that same neighbourhood on their own to the park or playground or local pool.
ParticipACTION produced a commercial that prompted parents to “Bring Back Play”. This ad was targeted at parents who are of the generation in which being out playing and being active was common. But can we really bring back play… play as it was? Is the campaign tag line something parents living within the current culture of parental anxiety and fear about children’s safety can even relate to (O’Connor & Brown, 2013). Perhaps first, we need campaigns that emphasize how safe neighbourhoods are or campaigns that encourage people to get to know their neighbours so that people can feel more comfortable letting their children move autonomously on the streets near home.
The latest ParticipACTION commercial series communicates that screen time limits play time or opportunity and that we (parents/children/other influential adults) need to “make room for play”. The images are, for example, of children playing hockey in an empty parking lot (see video below) or basketball in park court or skipping rope outside. In none of these videos are children being supervised by parents. How might this fit with parents’ own anxiety about leaving children unsupervised or their concerns about how they might be perceived by others if they were to send their child to the part unsupervised. Is the message that it is okay for children to play in the neighbourhood as long as they are in a group?
ParticipACTION Make Room for Play Video
If We Criminalize Childhood Independence…
… then I wonder why we are not criminalizing childhood physical inactivity and screen time. I’m not suggesting any aspect of childhood leisure, recreation, or play should be criminalized. However, if we are going to label parents as neglectful if they facilitate opportunities for their children to develop independence and autonomy, it does not make sense that we would ignore other potential “dangerous” childhood behaviours. For example, while currently working on a revision to its recommendations, the American Pediatric Association has previously discouraged screen use for children younger than 2 years of age. Several studies have produced evidence that screen-time, especially passive television time, can be harmful for children under two. Television tends to have negative effects on children’s language development, reading skills, short-term memory, sleep, and attention/concentration (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013). Children’s declining levels of physical activity are linked with increasing levels of childhood obesity (Healthy Active Living for Children and Youth, 2002) and we are bombarded with messages about the negative consequences of childhood obesity in terms of the short- and long-term health of children (e.g., sleep disorders, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol). However, we don’t see stories about parents being considered as neglectful if they allow their child to watch tv for 8 hours on a Saturday or play on tablets all day. Yet, one could argue, that those parenting decisions could be just as harmful or perhaps more harmful than allowing a children to play in a nearby park and walk home afterward.
The Meitivs seem to be making thoughtful parenting decisions that foster independence and contribute positively to their children’s development. And, the only risk of walking home from the park – as identified by the police at least – was that the children could be abducted by a stranger. Yet, the odds of that are pretty slim according to statistics Dvorak presents in her Post piece. Fear mongering, in my opinion, does little to support parents in facilitating children’s independence in their leisure time nor does it support parents in helping their children acquire the various assets that are associated with positive youth development and thriving.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2013). Policy statement: Children, adolescents, and the media. Pediatrics, 132(5), 958-961.
Healthy active living for children and youth (2002). Paediatrics & Child Health, 7(5), 339-358.
O’Connor, J., & Brown, A. (2013). A qualitative study of ‘fear’ as a regulator of children’s independent physical activity in the suburbs. Health & Place, 24, 157-164.