When do you let your child go to the park alone?

The question of free range vs. helicopter parenting (not that most of us don’t fall in the middle) seems to be a hotter topic than usual this summer.

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The discussion has been prompted in part by Debra Harrell’s story. The South Carolina mother was arrested for leaving her nine-year-old daughter in a local park while she worked at a nearby McDonald’s. (For a really good take on some of the issues involved in this story, check out Stacia L. Brown’s post about latchkey kids and race and socioeconomic status.)

Today in the wake of that online discussion, Slate posted results from a reader survey indicating that kids today have a lot less freedom than their parents. It’s a bit of a “no, duh,” moment in some ways, but I found this analysis pretty in line with my experience:

“Despite the nostalgia, most people, when pressed, don’t want to return to the detached, divorce-boom 1970s era of parenting. But they also feel a little ambivalent about how hovering they’ve become.”

I definitely relate. I have some nostalgia for the freedom I had as a kid…but none at all for some of the trouble I got into and situations I ended up in. I am not so worried about stranger danger, but things like getting hit crossing the street, falling down a ravine, or just plain being upset and worried with no one around are things I am so far trying to avoid for my kids.

I know that the last in that list is eventually necessary for growth — for example, learning how to get lost, and how to get found, is a critical adult skill, even if no one wants their child to be lost. I love that the way I grew up, plus many of the experiences I had where I managed to take care of myself, have contributed to a confidence level that lets me travel and explore the world around me. I want my kids to feel that they can handle life’s road bumps and do things independently. The only real way to learn that is to gradually take on more and more responsibility for one’s self and — get out there into the world. I also know that in a technologically connected world, they’ll probably be dragging GPS and texting around with them the whole time anyway.

But I’m aware as well that I had some experiences that weren’t just amusingly uncomfortable — there were times coming home alone from school or being around kids that really weren’t nice that I was really, really scared. I don’t want my kids to go through similar things. And I also know some of the lessons I learned about relying on myself were a result of being bullied or experiencing a sense that there really was no one else around who would help me. And that has resulted in a whole different set of missed opportunities for connection or to invite people in.

I think parents in my generation are maybe just a bit too aware that early experiences help shape our understanding of the world, and that makes us cautious — sometimes overly so. And what I’ve learned from the discussion this summer as well as the Slate survey is that handling that ambivalence — risk and reward, information and too much information, helpful neighbours vs. judgmental strangers — is what parenting right now is all about.

Right now my nine-year-old has some starter level of freedom around the neighbourhood — but I am getting him a walkie-talkie set for his birthday so I can bother him in my own unique helicopter way.

How much freedom are you giving your kids this summer?