Recently, I marveled as I rode my bike though the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. Why? Because so many children were walking around, exploring, and crossing streets with no adult that they were clearly attached to. There were plenty of adults around, but not all of the children were accompanied by one. It seemed like community building, people looking out for each other and working together to keep everyone safe, was definitely happening.
I was a bit envious. In my own neighborhood, just a mile or so away, my children have been hassled for walking half a block ahead of me.
Once, a stranger told my then-9-year-old son that he could have been kidnapped because he ran several yards ahead of me as we approached our home. Another time, someone threatened to call child protective services because my 2-year-old son insisted that we walk on different sides of a railing up a staircase.
In both cases, I thought: But you, neighbor of mine, are there too. Certainly you wouldn’t stand by as someone snatched a small 9-year-old from off the streets of Brooklyn? Surely you would catch a falling 2-year-old and not begrudge him the learning experience?
What are we really afraid of?
Perhaps the fear of our children getting hurt or kidnapped is not the fear that lurks in our communities. Maybe it's more about the fear of being judged by others.
Safe Kids Worldwide is a nonprofit focused on protecting children from accidental injury and death. They regularly release stats and reports, and they found that children these days are physically safer than they have been in decades. And parents surveyed in that same study feel that their children are safer.
So why does that not result in more physical independence or freedom for our children to explore on their own as other children have done in times past?
Our kids don't have the time to explore on their own.
Over the past 60 years, the expectations of parents and of children have changed in such a way that parents feel that every moment of their spare time needs to be invested in their children, says Dr. Sara Konrath. She is an associate professor of philanthropic studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. As she points out, even working moms these days spend more time with their children than stay-at-home moms did in the 1960s. Konrath believes that rising income inequality is a factor in the phenomenon of the overscheduled child (and the burned-out parent).
Children who might once have spent the hours after school playing and exploring are now spending all their spare time in scheduled activities. They are in sports practice, music classes, tutoring, and the list goes on. Parents who once might have spent time on their own pursuits, existing on the periphery of their children’s free time, now spend it supervising, driving, and advocating.
None of these things are necessarily bad, but the greater context is disconcerting. Konrath says that the drive to get ahead is not only leading to a generation of children who don’t know how to be alone, but a society where communities are competing instead of communing.
If we see a child not at soccer or at tutoring, we worry they're going to get "left behind." It’s a difference that points to a value change in our society. While children’s physical safety has improved, their mental, emotional, and social safety have been put at risk. They are deprived of necessary autonomy. Parents are buckling under the pressure to provide all the opportunities to get ahead. As a result, communities are dissolving in the wake of the drive to reach the top.
Communities should focus on connecting, not competing.
We want our children to be happy, but happiness doesn’t come from productivity or ambition or from maximizing every minute of every day in mastering skills. It comes from connection and relationships. Also, it comes from letting minds and bodies wander. And yes, it comes in quietly when we relax and reflect, tinker and talk without any agenda. We have to show our children that we love and enjoy them just because of who they are and not for what they can, potentially, do or achieve.
Obviously, bucking societal trends and expectations is not easy. And it feels like it comes with a huge cost. But focusing on potential future incomes, on profits over people, is shortsighted. The long-term view to providing our children with happy, successful lives includes being part of a community.
Being surrounded by people who support our values can do a lot of the work of raising kids who are competent, content, and confident. And the good news is that providing our children, and ourselves, with that community is within our control. We may not all live in tight-knit, insular communities, like the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood I rode my bike through. Yet we can create a place where our children can walk through the streets, play with their friends, run errands, and follow their curiosity without parental hand-holding. It's within our reach if we try. And families who undertake it together can give their children a sense of ownership that can empower them throughout their lives.
So how do we take ownership and build those relationships?
One place to start is by evaluating the communities you are already a part of. Maybe meet up with folks at library story time. Talk to people at the grocery store. You probably know other families who also hang out after dismissal to play at the school playground. Introduce yourself and your kids to other families where you already spend time. Make sure you are on their radar.
Another tactic is to follow your interests. Maybe you and your family are board game fanatics, geo-caching pros, or obsessed with space in a way that would make NASA proud. You’re not the only ones. Search for other families or groups in your area that share your love. Bring them together for a weekly board game matchup, monthly geo-caching extravaganza, or seasonal stargazing celebration.
Maybe you are not at all into organizing, or organizations, or any sort of formal gathering. If so, make casual but intentional efforts to get to know your neighbors. Also, get to know your neighborhood workers, like crossing guards, grocers, and clergy at the local churches. Little by little, you can can create the goodwill and support system to more confidently give your children space.
At the most basic level, spend time outside on the front porch. Hang out in the yard, walk through the streets, or play pickup games at the school playground. When you see (and are seen) by neighbors, it opens up opportunities for true connection. And before you know it, you'll have community connections. You'll even have people who are advocates for you and each other. And this is the way we can make sure no one gets kidnapped or left behind.