Children Don’t Need Constant Supervision at the Park
The piece below originally appeared in the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest, two leafy suburbs of Chicago.
It was written in response to an earlier column by a woman who’d seen a girl alone at the tennis courts in one of the area’s parks when two men got out of their car and approached the courts themselves. They proceeded to pick up a container of tennis balls they’d forgotten, and leave.
The writer was nonetheless alarmed for the girl, about age 6. She asked the girl to take her to her mom, which the girl did. The mom was a little ways off. After this, the writer mused that anything could have happened to the girl, and the mom would have been too far away to see. She ended with a plea for greater supervision.
This response is by Elli Purtell and Sarah Gripshover, two Oak Park moms we’ve never met but now LOVE, who gave Let Grow permission to reprint it. Heck — they linked to us at the end! In order not to shame the original columnist, they asked us not to link to her piece or use its exact title.
Children Need Autonomy
We’re writing in response to the girl-at-the-park piece. We have no doubt the author had the best intentions when she asked the young girl at the park to show her where her parent was, but we take issue with the general message of her op-ed.
Modern parents and caregivers are raising children in a society obsessed with absolute safety (the era of the ubiquitous “helicopter parent”). As mothers of young children ourselves, we understand the desperate feeling of worry that seems to go hand-in-hand with loving your child. But we also recognize how detrimental this type of parenting can be.
More and more children and teens are suffering from crippling mental health problems. According to a 2021 report published by the CDC, 40% of adolescents feel sad or hopeless most of the time and 10% have attempted suicide — a dramatic increase since 2011.
One of the best solutions for combating mental health problems and raising happy, confident kids is to give them more independence, not less. Children need autonomy. Research in developmental science shows that autonomous, unsupervised play is not a “nice to have” in childhood — it is an indispensable ingredient for healthy social, cognitive and emotional development. This includes, at minimum, letting them out of your sight for a few minutes at the playground once they’re of a certain age. (We believe the girl from the author’s original post was old enough to be exploring the park “on her own,” with a loving and attentive parent nearby.)
Only by solving problems independently do children develop the resilience needed to successfully navigate the world. It may sound counterintuitive, but the best way to keep our children safe is to let them go when they’re ready, even if it’s before we feel totally ready ourselves.
Instead, our communities now seem to be made up of wannabe vigilantes, trying to save
children from danger left and right, but in fact causing more harm. We personally know a mom
who had the police stop by her house one afternoon after a neighbor saw her 8-year-old
daughter riding her scooter alone on their block. The cops quickly understood there wasn’t an
issue and all was well, but the outcome is not always so harmless. However well-intentioned
these kinds of actions may be, we all need to take a step back, observe more, and trust that
parents know the capabilities of their child best.
Many of you may be thinking, but the world is so unsafe right now! There are a lot of creeps out there! We have good news for you. Despite society’s collective fears over child safety, the stats are comforting:
Non-family abductions are the rarest type, making up only 0.3% of the 2019 missing children cases. That means your child would need to be outside, unattended, for 750,000 years for that crime to be statistically likely to happen to them.
About 93% of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser.
The national crime rate peaked in 1991 and today’s murder rate is about half of what it was in the early ’90s.
For parents interested in giving their children age-appropriate independence, we encourage you to visit letgrow.org.
NOTE: This post has been updated with a new paragraph the authors sent us.