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Emily Popek

May 10, 2014

Kids who aren't allowed freedom will never learn

I would guess that most people reading this column enjoyed a fair amount of freedom to play when they were kids. (Raise your hand if your parents used to chuck you out the door and tell you not to come home until dinnertime.)

Whether latchkey kids or not, we kids often ran free. When I visited friends in town, we walked down the street to the market, the playground or the swimming pool. We played in the woods, in vacant lots, in cul-de-sacs, with no adults in sight. 

On my parents’ farm, I roamed free for hours, unsupervised. I vividly remember the time my best friend and I rode our bikes to the county fair. The 6-mile trip took us across a busy, four-lane highway. We had no cellphones (or bike helmets). I may have called my mother from a pay phone when we got there; but possibly I didn’t. 

We were, I think, 10 years old. 

I recently read a long essay by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic, titled “The Overprotected Kid.” The focus of the article is about a type of playground that offers kids less structure, and more adventure — as well as danger. (She visits one with an open fire burning, to give you an idea.)

But what I took away from her article was a feeling of heartsickness, not only how much childhood has changed in our society, but at how much of myself I saw in the parents she described. 

“My mother didn’t work all that much when I was younger, but she didn’t spend vast amounts of time with me, either,” Rosin writes. “After school she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children ... . When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult.”

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