Yesterday, Lenore Skenazy wrote this article about why it’s important to take young children outside and then leave them unsupervised.
The idea is that at around 10 a.m. parents take their kids to … their local park. And then they leave them there …
If they’re at least seven or eight years old, why NOT leave them there with the other kids gathering? It could be their first chance to finally do that thing we did as kids without thinking twice: Play.
As the author of a new book about my experience as a dad, I’d like to counter Skenazy’s argument by saying to you other parents there: Please, don’t leave your stupid kid alone at the park.
First of all, what kind of park are we talking about? There are different kinds of parks, you know. If you live in a gated community in Idaho and there’s a small playground at the end of your cul-de-sac, that’s a wee bit different than dropping off your kid at an Upper West Side kiddie war zone. There are THOUSANDS of children at those parks, all jostling for sandbox time and plugging up the swirly slide. No responsible human being just leaves a first grader at this kind of park for hours at a time. That’s lunacy.
More important, leaving your stupid kid at the park means I’m the one who ends up having to deal with him when he decides to put someone else’s dog in the baby swing. Where are you, Miss Enlightened? Who’s gonna make this little idiot come correct? If you want a nanny, pay me. There are kids of all ages at these parks. Those of us with younger kids HAVE to watch over them. And when your stupid kid steps on their head to commandeer the monkey bars, what then? Two seven-year-olds should be able to resolve their own conflicts on a playground. But an unsupervised tussle between your seven-year-old and a two-year-old ends up with my kid being thrown over a railing. You, Miss Hippy Dippy, should at least be NEARBY, so that I can grab you and tell you that your child won’t stop piledriving babies into the mulch. You can’t just go have lunch at Panera and expect anyone to congratulate you for it.
I agree with Skenazy that kids that age should be left alone to play and build their imaginary princess forts and all that. But her solution to just abandon a seven-year-old for a day isn’t the right one. Many Americans live in neighborhoods where the infrastructure inherently presents more hazards for a child playing alone. Maybe I want my kid to bike to the park, only there are no sidewalks to get there. Maybe they have to traverse a four-lane highway and cross a Wal Mart parking lot to get there. The reason too many kids stay indoors these days is because many exurban areas are set up in a way that actively encourages it. If you live on a farm, you can let your kids out the door in the morning and then go ring the dinner bell for them to come in at 5pm. We do not all live on farms.
A seven-year-old isn’t old enough to bike down to some park alone. A ten-year-old? Fine. I get that. Ten-year-olds are big and strong and annoying. But a younger child should have unsupervised play in a less crowded, less hazardous area: a backyard, a basement, a school recess. You have to have some measure of common sense about what kind of environment you’re leaving your kid in. And you have to be a good judge of what the right age is for fully unsupervised play in the environment you’re dealing with. When I was twelve, I used to bike down a railroad track to town to go rent video games and steal Playboys. Twelve is a good age for that sort of thing. I would not suggest an eight-year-old do that. He wouldn’t appreciate the Playboy as much anyway.
There is definitely an obesity crisis in America right now, and shutting in your kids doesn’t help matters much. But Skenazy’s “just leave them!” proposal is an airy fairy idea that doesn’t take into account where you live and how your community is set up. Many of us CAN’T leave kids to play on their own, and there are legitimate reasons why. Those are the deeper issues that need fixing. Kids need better places to play than what they have now. You are not kickstarting a revolution by adding the extra twist of you being twenty miles away.