South Carolina and Connecticut are among two of the latest states that might soon allow kids more opportunities to step out on their own for some time at the park or a walk to school. Following the example of Utah, Lawmakers in South Carolina and Connecticut are two of the latest states to consider changes in state law to protect parents’ ability to allow their children a bit more independence, without worrying that such allowances will be seen as criminally “neglectful” by local authorities. This is good news for parents interested in helping their kids prepare for the real world and an incredible opportunity for kids to develop and hone skills that could help them succeed later in life.
To many adults, such a law might seem unnecessary, as most of us undoubtedly have memories of playing outside unsupervised all the time (at least until the streetlights came on) or walking alone to a corner store. But times have changed, and the culture has changed with them. Child protection has become an all-encompassing dogma that has been stretched to ridiculous proportions. In 2014, a mother in South Carolina was charged with a felony for allowing her nine-year-old to play at a park while she was working nearby. A Connecticut mother was arrested in 2015 when her eight-year-old stepson attempted to walk the two miles to school by himself. These cases are hardly isolated incidents. Constant parental supervision is all the rage and parents looking to provide their kids a little independence often find themselves brushing up against concerned onlookers or even the police.
While keeping kids safe is important, some perspective is helpful. Despite the rise of safety culture and helicopter parenting, kids today are safer than ever. Violent crime is down across the board and the chances of a child being kidnapped are incredibly small. In fact, the crime rate in the United States today is far lower than it was in the 1990s. The real danger now facing kids is not from strangers, but from the unintended consequences of this overprotection.
Rates of depression and anxiety among America’s youth have been increasing for the past 50 to 70 years. While only about one in ten college students in the 1980s could be characterized as needing, wanting, or using mental health services at a given point in time, today the figure is about one in three, and growing. While it’s hard to pin down the exact causes of this increase, some experts have warned that the lack of childhood free play and independence are a major part of the problem. Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College and author of Free to Learn, notes that, “By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives.”
Allowing kids more independence and time for unsupervised play not only mitigates the risks of various psychological issues, but it can actually help them develop skills that are necessary for personal and economic success later in life. For decades now, researchers have touted the value of soft skills, such as socioemotional self-regulation, perseverance, and the ability to work well in teams, in helping individuals achieve greater long-term economic success.
The modern labor market increasingly values soft skills, and as automation continues to disrupt traditional and routinized occupations, these skills are only likely to become even more important. According to research from David Deming, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, “Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force.” Such skills are often developed at an early age and form the basis for future learning and academic success.
Given what we now know about mental health risks among young adults and the importance of developing soft skills, it is clear that overprotecting kids today has real costs for their future. While a broader cultural shift is needed to better prepare kids for success later in life, parents hoping to grant mature kids a bit more independence should be encouraged. Going it alone is challenging for parents but changing the law to prevent prosecution for such decisions is a great place to start.