What were you allowed to do when you were a kid? In July, South Carolina mother Debra Harrell was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to play in the park unattended while she was at work. Harrell’s arrest prompted outrage, but also an outpouring of nostalgia, as indignant readers remembered activities they routinely did as children that are considered near criminal today. So we asked Slate readers to answer a survey about what they were allowed to do as kids, and also what they let their own children do today. About 6,000 of you answered, and the results give a fairly clear picture, over several decades, of a shortening leash for American children.
First, one of our favorite respondent anecdotes, from a reader born in 1977 who wrote of a science experiment gone very, very wrong:
We made napalm in middle school chemistry and were allowed to bring it home. I coated my G.I. Joes in the stuff and lit them on fire in the driveway. Almost burned my hand off grabbing them, but luckily I felt the heat and remembered the napalm's flames were invisible. Parents never found out because they were at work. Latch-key childhood!
We heard a lot about sneaking out, petty theft, amateur arson, drugs, and sexual experimentation from our older respondents. But as time passes, the picture of childhood looks a lot less wild and reckless and a lot more monitored. We asked parents how they would react if they caught their kids doing what they had done as kids. A typical response: “I'd probably freak out and turn my home into a prison.”
Broad surveys show that childhood norms have shifted drastically over a generation (in 1971, for example, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone, but by 1990, only 9 percent did), and our survey of Slate readers confirms that trend. We asked, for example, when readers were allowed to walk 1 to 5 miles from home. For the cohort born in the 1940s, the majority answered second to third grade. By the time we get to the cohort born in the 1980s, the age shifts to fifth grade, and for the 1990s cohort, we are solidly in middle school. A similar trend shows up for a host of other issues, such as going to the playground alone and having to check in with parents when you are out for several hours. The shift in going out after dark is especially dramatic. Earlier cohorts were allowed out at night in middle school, but by the 1990s the norm is solidly high school.
The most noticeable shift in the Slate survey happens between cohorts born in the 1980s and the 1990s, which is consistent with other national surveys. This is because, during the Reagan era, a panic about the dangers of childhood began to take hold. Citizen advocates lamented the perils of playgrounds, and lawsuits forced cities to get rid of what was deemed dangerous equipment. As Paula Fass chronicles in Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America, a few high-profile abduction cases set off a fear of child snatchers lurking on every corner. Ronald Reagan declared National Missing Children’s Day, and milk cartons began featuring missing children’s faces, making every breakfast an opportunity to fear the worst for your children.
Needless to say, the specific fears are overblown. A child is no more likely to be abducted by a stranger today than he was in the 1970s, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. Abductions have increased, but that’s almost entirely due to estranged spouses or parents kidnapping their own children. What has changed over the last 40 years is our sense of community. Mothers work, neighbors talk less, and the divorce rate began to creep upward in the 1970s and has remained at around 45 percent. Rates of single motherhood have exploded since the 1980s. But that kind of change is so ubiquitous that it becomes almost invisible, so instead we turn it into a concrete evil: the creep lurking just around the corner.
Over the years, parental fears have also translated into the view that children are fragile, too tender to handle tricky emotional or physically risky activities, argues Tim Gill, author of No Fear, a critique of our risk-averse society. And we saw this in the Slate survey as well. Cohorts born in the 1970s were allowed to use the stove alone in fourth to fifth grade, and were more at ease with tools. For those born in the 1990s, cooking on the stove and using sharp tools alone didn’t happen until middle school. Earlier generations started to earn money in middle school; the last cohort had to wait until high school.
The outlier trends are also revealing. There is very little change across the decades when kids are allowed to stay home alone. In almost every cohort, it’s between fourth and fifth grade. Apparently, the fears that have gripped American parents since the ’80s pretty specifically center around public spaces—malls, playgrounds, and eventually the Internet. Home, by contrast, remains a safe space (as long as you aren’t using the stove).
One interesting trend that runs in the opposite direction: More middle school–age kids were allowed to go on dates alone in recent years than their predecessors were (you children of the ’70s and ’80s had to wait until high school). Before you assume this has to do with the increased sexualization of kids, remember that teen pregnancies hit a record low this year. The shift may have to do with parents’ more permissive attitude toward sex compared with earlier generations of moms and dads. According to a 2002 AARP study, 20 percent of the parents of boomers thought premarital sex was “not wrong at all” in 1970. Several decades later when boomers became parents themselves, 40 percent believed premarital sex was “not wrong at all.” There’s also the change in the meaning of the word date. Maybe now, going out alone with a romantic interest isn’t all that different from going out with a group of friends. We welcome your theories on this one.