Let kids play outside alone? It should be a crime, poll says

Aug 25, 2014, 1:47 PM | Updated: 1:47 pm
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Many Americans believe kids as old as 12 need adult supervision if they're going to play in public places, indoors or outside, according to a new poll that found a high number of people would support laws making it illegal to allow a 9-year-old to play unsupervised at the park.

The polls come as news outlets like U.S. News and World Reports are noting an uptick in parents arrested for letting their children do things without supervision.

Writes Tierney Sneed, “Mothers arrested in Florida and South Carolina in recent weeks are the latest in an ongoing trend of parents seeing legal punishment for letting their children play or travel in public unsupervised. The former was charged with child neglect by local authorities for letting her 7-year-old son walk to a park half a mile from their home by himself (the mother later told WPTV that a Florida Department of Children and Families official informed her the charges would likely be dropped). In South Carolina, the woman — a single mom who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a nearby park unattended while she worked her shift at McDonald's — served 17 days in jail and, if convicted of felony child neglect, could face 10 years in prison.”

The recent Reasons-Rupe survey, conducted by phone in August, asked 1,000 adults about child safety issues. The pollsters found 82 percent of Americans would support a law to require supervision of kids 9 and under playing in public parks. And 63 percent said that 12 years old is too young to play without supervision.

Asked whether kids face more or fewer threats to their physical safety than when respondents were growing up, 62 percent of those polled said that the world is more dangerous today, while 30 percent said the threat level is about the same.

In reality, studies show that crime has been going down consistently for more than 20 years. In 2012, the Christian Science Monitor noted that “the last time the crime rate for serious crime — murder, rape, robbery, assault — fell to these levels, gasoline cost 29 cents a gallon and the average income for a working American was $5,807.”

Asked whether news media and political leaders accurately report over- or underestimate threats children face in their day-to-day lives, 41 percent said it's an accurate portrayal. The remainder split nearly evenly between under- and overestimating threats, at 29 and 27 percent respectively.

Crime fears are “over-hyped,” according to an article by Lenore Skenazy on Reason.com. She wrote: “'One culprit is the 24-hour news cycle,' Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, said when I asked him why so few kids are outside these days. Turn on cable TV, 'and all you have to do is watch how they take a handful of terrible crimes against children and repeat that same handful over and over,' he said. 'And then they repeat the trial over and over, and so we're conditioned to live in a state of fear.'”

“I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, anytime, that underestimates children's abilities more than we North Americans do today,” Boston College psychology professor emeritus Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, told Skenazy.

Skenazy herself has been a bit controversial. As ABC News reported, “Skenazy has a history of pushing parents' perceptions of what freedoms should be allowed for their children. In 2008 she attracted scorn and ridicule for allowing her son, then age 9, to ride the New York City subway by himself. Since then, she's organized one day each year when parents are instructed to take their children to the park and leave them there.”

She said, “People thought that was crazy too, but it's been running for three years now and I hear from parents who say, 'I did let my kids go to the park today.' It takes something to start breaking up the ice, this thick layer of ice over childhood, and if I'm giving a little tap with an ice pick to crack, than I'm happy to. “

The poll asked at what age children should be allowed to do certain things. The median age the adults polled believe children should be allowed to stay home alone was 13, while the median for babysitting other children was 14. They said children should be able to walk to and from school without an adult at 12 years, on average and at age 11 should be allowed to wait alone in the car for five minutes on a cool day.

The poll also showed median age those asked would support a child doing other activities, including cooking (age 12), mowing the lawn (age 12) and having a part-time job (15).

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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Let kids play outside alone? It should be a crime, poll says