Children's Voice Sep/Oct 2009

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The Down to Earth Dad

Freedom at Home... But No Place to Roam

By Patrick Mitchell

Today's kids can't roam their neighborhoods and communities like their parents and grandparents did, but if it's any consolation, they have unprecedented freedoms while in their homes.

Dr. Markella Rutherford, a researcher and assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, studied 300 childrearing advice articles from Parents, the oldest parenting publication in the United States, in print since 1926. Her analysis of back issues of the magazine reveals how advice about parental authority has shifted focus in the past century so that today's kids are on a short leash outside the home, but are free to do almost anything while they're inside the home.

That's exactly the opposite of how things were just two generations ago. In the old days, children were expected to do rigorous chores, prepare food, and look after other children-things that might be considered unacceptable by today's standards. There's been a gradual shift over the past 80 years, so that today kids argue freely with their parents about things like chores. "They can negotiate with their parents, and even flat out refuse to do some things around the house, giving them a sense of autonomy at home that would have been unheard of by their grandparents," Rutherford says.

Some of these new freedoms are good for children, she notes. I can't help but feel, though, that children have suffered, on the balance, by the diminished away-from-home freedoms. "Parents in recent decades have become much more cautious because of child abduction or other forms of abuse by strangers.... Today's parents feel they need to constantly keep their children under surveillance because they feel, 'This is what is expected of me as a good parent.' Today's parents don't send their children out into the neighborhood to play as much," she says. "They bring up things like Child Protective Services. They tell me, 'I don't send my kids out into the neighborhood because what if something happens to my child and I wasn't right there with them, and they say I've been neglectful?'"

It all amounts to fewer opportunities for kids to experience the bumps, barbs, bruises, and lessons that happen when you roam freely like a bunch of Little Rascals. Ever see a Charlie Brown episode where the parents were physically present? There aren't any in which the parents actually appear. Today, Charlie Brown and friends (like most school-age children these days) would be under the watchful surveillance of parents or other adults.

Rutherford told me about her interviews with parents and educators, who said they played freely in their neighborhoods when they were younger, without constant supervision from adults. I agree with Rutherford's take on the matter: "You know, maybe it's okay for some bad things to happen. Maybe it's okay for children to fall down and get a bump or a bruise," she says. As for the bigger concerns, she notes-including the prospect of serious injuries occurring, and people who would take advantage of our children-parents can get creative and work together without severely limiting their children's worldly freedoms. I would go a step further and say that existing child- and family-serving programs can find creative ways to provide children with more freedoms outside the home while not severely limiting their autonomy.

How can parents get their kids back outside into their neighborhoods and communities with more freedoms- more like their grandparents had? "I think parenting can be more of a community endeavor. I would advise parents to band together with other people in their communities and to try to find a way-some good ways-that they can work on a consensus of what we think is safe for our kids to do," Rutherford suggests. "Say, 'We can create a space in our town, and we will all provide support for other parents to allow their children to have a little more freedom,' and 'We can establish community parks as a safe place, where children can play with not all of their parents present at all times.'"
A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, and facilitates the National Dads Matter! TM Project for child- and family-serving organizations. He provides keynote addresses and trainings, and conducts Family Storytelling Night TM events for programs and schools. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the National Dads Matter! TM Project for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877-282-DADS, or e-mail him at

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