I knew something was wrong when, driving home, I saw a line of people walking methodically through an open-space field near my house. It was as bad as you could imagine. A disturbed 17-year-old male had kidnapped a 10-year-old girl as she walked to school, strangled her to death, cut her body into pieces, and dumped her in a field. It is the sort of horror that gives parents nightmares. That crime still traumatizes me and others a decade later. Sometimes I take my six-year-old son to the park named in the girl’s honor. I can’t help thinking what she might be doing now, as a young woman, had someone been able to stop the abduction.
Crime is not the only danger to kids. Children are several times as likely to die from an unintentional injury (an “accident”) than by homicide. And, horribly, most children who are murdered are the victims of their own parents. So normal families should worry more about injury than about homicide.
As a parent, I have to fight the urge to be overly protective of my son. A review of the data helps. Kidnappings by strangers are rare, in the low hundreds per year in the U.S., while kidnappings by family members and acquaintances are much more common but usually resolved. On the other hand, hundreds of children die by drowning every year, and over a thousand children died in car crashes in 2019. People sometimes obsess about rare threats and ignore more-common but banal threats. The annual scare about drugged Halloween candy illustrates the problem.
A long-term view helps. Our World in Data summarizes: “Before the Modern Revolution child mortality was very high in all societies that we have knowledge of—a quarter of all children died in the first year of life, almost half died before reaching the end of puberty. Over the last two centuries all countries in the world have made very rapid progress against child mortality. From 1800 to 1950 global mortality has halved from around 43% to 22.5%. Since 1950 the mortality rate has declined five-fold to 4.5% in 2015.” That is extraordinary progress.
I try to find a reasonable balance between keeping my kid safe and giving my child the freedom to explore the world. After all, over-protectiveness comes with its own dangers. Children must learn to navigate the world around them to become successful adults. I was pleased, then, to see that the Colorado legislature passed its “Reasonable Independence for Children” bill, the so-called “Free-Range Kids” act.
Rep. Mary Young said in a recent release, “This bill makes it clear that there is no need to get the authorities involved when kids are out and about in their neighborhood, walking to school or playing on the playground. When youth are given independence they grow, learn and thrive and we’re pleased to pass legislation that empowers their right to independence.” Remarkably, the bill passed third reading in both the house and senate unanimously. Such consensus is extraordinary.
The bill itself is admirably short. Here is the main text, based on the March 25 “Final Act”: “A child is not neglected when allowed to participate in independent activities that a reasonable and prudent parent, guardian, or legal custodian would consider safe given the child’s maturity, condition, and abilities, including but not limited to activities such as: (i) traveling to and from school, including walking, running, bicycling, or other similar mode of travel; (ii) traveling to and from nearby commercial or recreational facilities; (iii) engaging in outdoor play; and (iv) remaining in a home or other location that a reasonable and prudent parent, guardian, or legal custodian would consider safe for the child.”
The bill leaves open for debate what “reasonable and prudent” means. In the end, the bill is more of a statement than a policy change, emphasizing that people generally should err on the side of letting kids be free to explore. Does this laissez-faire stance come with risks? Undoubtedly. But we must remember also the risks of locking kids away, “safe” from the world but unable fully to engage with it.
The name of the girl mentioned earlier is Jessica Ridgeway. My son is still a bit young to wander around the neighborhood by himself. But someday I plan to let him walk to the Jessica Ridgeway Memorial Park, by himself, to play with friends. That will be scary for me. But I will try to remember that children cannot live in perpetual fear. They need substantial independence to develop. I want my child to learn that the world is his to explore.
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