If you are like most Americans, you come home these bright spring afternoons and see leafy trees, lovely lawns, singing birds ... and zero children. Where are they?
You just saw the reason yourself: There aren't any other kids outside to play with.
It's a vicious circle. (Or is it cycle? I never can get that straight.) In any event, it is a problem that keeps repeating itself: My kids don't go outside because there's no one for them to play with. So you don't send your kids out because there's no one to play with. So I don't send mine outside ... etc., etc., until it's time for dinner and my own two darling boys have spent another spring afternoon in front of their computers.
How do we break that cycle? Well, here's a wild idea. Today is "Take Our Children to the Park ... and Leave Them There Day."
Yes, it's a day when we all are encouraged to take our kids, age 7 or 8 or older, to the park. With any luck, other parents will do this, too. And then, for an hour or a half-hour or even a baby step of 10 minutes, we leave them to their own devices. Their job is to rediscover the joy we almost have excised from their childhood: playing, with one another, without us parents helicoptering.
Who came up with this holiday? Well, I did. Why not? I wrote the book Free-Range Kids, and I write the blog by that same name. Over the past two years, I have heard from thousands of parents who wish their kids could have the kind of childhood they had, playing kickball or stickball or jump-rope till dusk. That just-add-kid fun is rare today because we have been told by the media that "times have changed" and that our children are in terrible danger the second they step outside. But are they?
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the crime rate today is lower, nationally, than it was in the '70s and '80s, when most of us parents were playing outside. So ironically, our children are safer than we were. It just doesn't feel that way because now there is so much kidnapping going on — on TV. From CSI to CNN, a (white, female) child abduction is the biggest ratings getter around. So on TV, we see snatchings 24/7. It starts to feel as if they're happening 24/7 in the real world, too.
But they aren't. And anyway, as you probably know, the vast majority of crimes against children are committed by people they know — often relatives. "We have been trying to debunk the myth of stranger danger," Ernie Allen told me — and he's the head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the organization that put the missing kids' pictures on the milk cartons. If he thinks stranger danger is a myth, why are the rest of us so terrified?
There is a real danger that what we are exposing kids to is inertia. Kids kept inside are becoming fatter, sadder and sometimes diabetic. What's worse, perhaps, is that they are missing out on the very gift we wish to give them: a happy childhood.
Childhood is a time when kids play. That's what makes them happy — and learn a whole lot, too. When they play on their own, they communicate ("The fence is out!"), compromise ("Okay, we'll say it's in"), create ("The tree is the store") and run around. They develop all the skills we want them to have, with the possible exception of sitting quietly. But after they've run around for a while, that's easier for them to do, too.
Take our children to the park today and they will start doing all those wonderful things again. And the biggest danger?
They'll be having so much fun they'll want to do it again.
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