A child at Mill Grove in Audubon, Pennsylvania.
The story made headlines. In Silver Spring, Maryland, two children, one aged ten and one aged six, were snatched off the street and held captive. The kids were deprived of food and water, and unable to call for help. It was hours before they were able to be reunited to their worried parents.
We know who the kidnappers are, but they haven’t been brought to justice. That’s because they ARE justice, allegedly. Child Protective Services, after a call from someone who saw the kids, stepped in and seized the frightened children.
There’s a lot that can be said about the case, and as the parents are now preparing to sue CPS there will be more to write about. Leonore Skenazy, founder of the “free range parenting” movement, is covering the story at her website, and at www,freerangekids.com you can read that story and other examples of helicopter parenting and the nanny state. This ‘crime’ in Maryland isn’t an isolated incident, unfortunately.
While the discussions about the limits and responsibilities of parenting rage on in the media, one point seems to be missed, and it’s important. And the case in Maryland illustrates it. The two children were picked up on their way home from a local park. In other words, they were seized and they and the parents punished for participating in the outdoors.
I can’t help but recall my own childhood reading this story. Let’s turn back the clock to the 1970s. I was a headstrong ten year old boy, or in other words a boy. One day I decided I was going to walk to a park a mile from my house. So I did just that. And I wandered around the park, looked at the creek, did the silly stuff boys do, talked with a park ranger, and then walked back home. Being me, I hadn’t bothered to tell my mother I was doing this. Being my mother, she was FURIOUS I’d gone off without telling her where I was going.
But note she wasn’t upset I’d gone to the park, only that I hadn’t told her. Was she a bad mother because I got out of her sight? No. Was I a bad kid because I’d gone to a park and played? No, not at all. That was normal behavior for a child. Was I a bad kid for not asking for and obtaining permission first? Of course I was. As a parent my mother set the rules based on her knowledge of me, and the neighborhood, and the surroundings. I knew I had limits. I worked within those limits, and I tested them, as all children do. (My father had little to do with raising me or my siblings, so he wasn’t involved in these setting and testing of limits.) That was normal at the time. Today I’d be in foster care and my mother in jail once someone informed the police of my trip to the park. (Note that the park ranger thought nothing odd about an eleven year old boy being unattended in the park.)
Times have changed since 1977. A recent poll at Yougov.com showed seven out of ten parents would not allow a pre teen child to go to a park by themselves or play in a park without parental supervision. Eight out of ten would not allow the child to walk to school by themselves. (Presumably the same number wouldn’t let their kids ride their bikes to school or a park either.)
Now, before you think I’ve turned this website into a parenting blog, here’s some facts recently discussed in the outdoor community. (Note I’ve linked to articles discussing the data when the links to the source documents are dead.) The National Park Service requires a permit for camping use of ‘backcountry’ – land undeveloped into a park. Between 1979 and 2013 the NPS is issuing 700 thousand fewer permits a year. Expanding the data to include all forms of overnight stays, during the same time period the NPS has two million fewer visitors a year. Keep in mind the population of the United States increased by nearly a third during that time. Day use at national parks remains steady, but data shows the average age of visitors increasing, and the number of young people participating dropping. And again remaining steady against an increasing population means a decline.
And its not just backpacking. The US Fish and Wildlife Service reports a 15 per cent drop in the number of people who fish during the ten year period from 1996 to 2006. Hunting permit requests were down ten per cent in that period. I don’t have data on the state level, but its no secret fewer people are hunting in Pennsylvania than in previous years, and its not because there’s less land to hunt. (State Game Lands total more than the acreage of Rhode Island.)
Correlation isn’t causation. But as the twig is bent…. if you raise your child to believe the outdoors is dangerous, that its unsafe to visit a park on your own, that they need a parent with them to protect them….. well, they aren’t as likely to go hiking or cycling or camping or fishing as adults. Our actions are smothering the love of the outdoors for future generations.
Which brings this back to the family in Maryland punished for allowing their kids to play in a local park without parental supervision. Someone who falls into the seventy per cent in the YouGov poll called the authorities because the kids were unattended. The outdoors is a natural part of a child’s world. Seven out of ten parents don’t want it to be. We have to decide if a world without the outdoors is what we as a society want, and it appears we are making our choice.