Readers! Here’s a piece I wrote for my syndicated column:
Coming up this Saturday is holiday you didn’t celebrate as a child, because you didn’t have to. You just got up, ate breakfast and sped off to the park. No big deal.
Except it is now. Around the country, the parks are empty. Or, if there are kids around, they’re tiny tots on the jungle gym with parents poised tensely below, arms open, ready for the worst. The older kids are at home on their computers, or off at travel soccer, or studying with a tutor. Or they’re simply told, “It’s too dangerous out there,” – “there” being any place beyond the doormat. That’s why I declared the Saturday before Memorial Day, “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.”
Last year, when I started this holiday, it got the kind of treatment I have come to expect from the fear-is-dear media: It was ridiculed on about six or seven TV shows, with the reporters interviewing terrified parents in the park and coming back to tell the anchor, “Nobody thinks this is a safe idea.”
Of course not! How could they, when the “news” makes it sound like we are living in Armageddon? (Which, come to think of it, is also slated for Saturday.) Where do you think folks get the idea that the very same parks they played in as kids are now cesspools of danger and depravity? One network even interviewed a lawyer who hinted that any parent allowing a kid to go to the park could be charged with child endangerment, which is patently untrue, unless the child is extremely young and helpless. I suggest that kids be at least seven or eight years old – the age kids walk to school in the rest of the world — before being allowed to play for maybe half an hour on their own, at the local playground. Is that so nuts?
A lot of people think it is. But the idea that stranger danger is rampant is unfounded. Crime is DOWN since the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, when today’s parents were kids playing in the park. The societal ills actually trending up have to do with NOT playing outside: Childhood obesity, childhood depression, childhood diabetes. We forget that when we try to keep our kids “absolutely” safe, cooped up inside, there’s a tradeoff.
What happens when we give them a bit of the freedom we had? Well, some bumps and bruises, of course, but some key developmental milestones, too.
When kids are – this is a weird word – “forced” to play on their own, they actually develop some rather amazing skills. The first is creativity: they have to create something to do, without pressing a button. Second comes communication: They have to explain the game to their friends. Then comes compromise – if the friends want to play something else – and diplomacy: making the teams equal. Giving the younger kid an easier pitch requires empathy, and granting that the ball was “out” requires grace. Those are all skills that kids will need later on in life, and even not so later on: The ability to wait one’s turn on the ball field develops the ability to wait one’s turn in class.
So “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day” is not an exercise in neglect. It’s the opposite: it’s nurturing independence, which just happens to be the end-goal of parenting.
If you want to participate, I’m suggesting that you bring your kids to your local park at about 10 in the morning, so that everyone in the neighborhood can meet each other. With any luck, suddenly the park will be alive, once again, with child development.
Er…you know, kids. Having fun.