Great American Panic

Why Free-Range Kids Are Healthier

Your kid is exactly as likely to be struck by lightning as he or she is to be randomly abducted. So why are we permanently branding parents as neglectful or abusive for letting their kids go to the park by themselves?

A couple in Maryland, both scientists with advanced degrees, are under investigation because they allowed their children to play in a local park unsupervised. Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are practitioners of “free-range” parenting, the philosophical opposite of “helicopter” parenting, so their children (aged 10 and 6) have the freedom to walk together around the local neighborhood without their parents.

By practicing free-range parenting the Meitivs have fallen under the scrutiny of Child Protective Services, whose influence can linger over a home for years and years for now-illegal activities like leaving a child alone in a car or house—even for a few minutes, depending on the state.

So is it really endangerment to leave a child alone? In the Maryland case, a social worker with Child Protective Services said that the danger in leaving children alone was that there were “creeps.” This wide-spread notion is the basis for not just laws that classify leaving a child alone in a house neglect, but also a pervasive and widespread culture of parenting that assumes children are an at-risk population.

Looking at the actual numbers, it’s estimated that around 100 “stereotypical” child abductions by strangers occur a year—that is, of the horror movie-styled, snatch-and-grab, candy-in-a-van ilk. A Harvard Law blogger estimated that it would take an average of 26,000 years of a child sitting alone in a parking lot before that child was abducted in this manner.

And only roughly 50 percent of these stereotypical abductions end in the child not being recovered, which means around 50 children a year are abducted and killed by strangers. That’s the exact equivalent of being killed by a lightning strike, which account for 51 deaths a year on average in the U.S.

That’s right: The chance of a child being abducted and murdered by a stranger is the direct equivalent of someone being struck dead by lightning. Not only that, but there’s no data that parental supervision actually prevents these stereotypical kidnapping scenarios—that is, that less supervised children are more likely to be snatched, on average, than children with parents who never leave their respective sides.

Could that protective effect exist? It’s an unpleasant experience to be sure, but if you put on the rubber wetsuit of a child-murderer’s mentality it seems unlikely they would cruise around looking for random kids and instead pick their targets ahead of time, either for ransoms or for too-icky-to-think-about-reasons. Right now, American parents are burdening themselves socially and economically to prevent a threat for which there is no proof more or better parenting can help reduce. And even if this constant overprotection does offer some decrease in the probability of a kidnapping, it’s in the same way that having your kids carrying around lightning rods decreases their chance of being killed via lightning strike. Any decrease in the probability ends up being an infinitesimal that drops out of our lived lives in the same way infinitesimals drop out of differential equations in calculus.

The internet has undoubtedly exacerbated these concerns by turning our society into an all-to-all network, wherein the length between any two information points is minimal—and the smallest we’ve yet seen. It’s not just the threat of abduction that keeps kids on ‘round-the-clock supervision. The climate of fear includes all sorts of improbable things.

Our over-reliance on case studies of murder, rape, abduction and accidents contradicts not just well-gathered statistics about how much safer the world is getting but also our own experiences, as our locally created worldviews are replaced by ones heavily biased by far-flung and rare events.

What’s the impact of all of this on parents? Well, unhappy parents make for unhappy children, and the amount of time that women spend on childcare has increased by 40 percent since 1965. Men’s time spent has nearly tripled, all while the general American population is having far fewer children and working more hours than any other industrialized country.

Children, in other words, have become a larger socioeconomic sacrifice of both overparenting and overwork. And when parents want some utterly justifiable time to themselves, they plop the kid in front of a screen, substituting attentive occupation for actual time away from adults.

Children are not benefiting from this overprotection. Indeed, some science indicates it’s endangerment to never leave a child alone.

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We all have a relationship to this issue. In fact, when I told my sister about this assignment, and mentioned to her the Meitivs, the first thing she said was this: “Mom was a free-range parent before being free-range was a thing.”

Growing up in the late-’90s on an old Yankee farmhouse on the East Coast, I was allowed acres and acres of freedom. My cousins and friends would come over and we would pursue whatever weird imaginative arcana we had going at the moment, sometimes in the long castle of our barn with its hanging ropes and parapets of hay bales, or in the open fields behind it, or out like little savages in the local woods. My mom, a single parent, was not always there, often at work or running errands, or sometimes she was present but we ended up miles away.

My sister and her husband recently moved back to that same farmhouse to raise my nephew, who’s two years old. My sister has a second kid due any day now, another boy. She wants to move back precisely because the farmhouse isn’t safe and sterile and adult supervised.

It turns out one main determinant of a child’s success is his or her “grit.” Grit is pretty much what you’d expect: the ability to tenaciously pursue large-scale goals in a manner independent of external vagaries, like encouragement or discouragement. Grit turns out to be more predictive of a child’s success than intelligence. While breaking a child’s holistic personality into traits is a reductive approach, the general trend toward considering these “soft traits” of personality more and more vital is clear in child psychology.

So now parents and psychologists are undergoing the long-delayed realization that forming some kind of gritty personality core capable of navigating the contingencies of a human life isn’t like being taught a mnemonic for the planets of the solar system. It cannot be institutionalized. And children are at their grittiest and most self-reliant in the absence of adults in a land of rocks, streams, playgrounds, courts, lawns, tree houses and pirate ships.

Constant adult supervision in structured formats also impacts creative, free-form play. The Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) is a battery of tests that quantifies how well a child (or adult) can expand upon an idea. It has been shown to be highly correlated with success, moreso than even IQ. Scores on the TTCT have been steadily dropping since the 80s, to the point where both children and adults are today significantly less creative than they were in the past any way you feel like measuring it.

Child creativity at its most potent is known as “paracosmic play,” or worldplay. Worldplay is when a child creates an imaginary world filled with denizens and events, like politics or wars or family dramas. Sometimes children draw out the geography in maps like those at the beginning of fantasy books, or create long histories and detailed customs. Fundamentally, worldplay is just highly complex imaginative play, wherein the imaginary environment involves a lot of elaborated detail and is steady across some amount of time. Large amounts of worldplay is a potential sign of intellectual giftedness. Worldplay in MacArthur Geniuses, for instance, is twice as high compared to the normal population.

The reason why worldplay is of interest to psychologists—and so far appears to be very common in successful and impactful people—is that worldplay is definitionally the most creative thing a child can do. The creation of an entire world ex nihilo is the most creative act in physics and metaphysics, and it is in such cosmogony that the creative-creation relationship is clearest.

If one is looking purely at the “units” of imaginative work that get done, it follows that paracosmic play is literally the apotheosis of creative acts: the shaping of an internally consistent world from nothing.

A familiar and obvious corollary to worldplay is having an imaginary friend. In the literature, worldplay is currently defined pretty stringently—only for children who build worlds over weeks or months. But that definition is too strict. If a child builds a world around a dollhouse or a group of action figures and keeps returning to it, is that not obviously a type of wordplay? And since most people have few memories prior to the age of seven due to a critical period of neurological restructuring in which many memories are lost, it's probable that intense childhood imaginary acts are under-reported and that imaginary friends exist on a spectrum that the majority of kids touch at some point.

And there’s the strong possibility that all adult intellectual activity has predecessors in this creative play. The play’s the thing. But children can't easily engage in these common creative acts under the strictures of nonstop adult supervision. Not in their truest form, at least.

I’ve talked to some friends of mine whom I used to engage with in worldplay and we all, to this day, share the collective sentiment that something very strange was going. We all experienced exactly the same imaginary events, as in some kind of child-only, Vulcan mind meld had occurred and we literally saw the same imaginary world around our little group. I’m not saying this is literally true, but it’s certainly anecdotal evidence of some kind of psychologically permeable state totally inaccessible to normal human adults, such that children need to be left alone to do it. And this is reflected in the general fact that, as adults, we can indulge children’s fantasies but none of us can cross that Terabithian bridge anymore. Those worlds can only be recollected, never entered, never again.

Terabithia, from the young adult novel “Bridge to Terabithia,” for one, is the imaginary world that is shared via childhood mind meld by the two main characters, a young boy and girl. In the novel the girl eventually dies while playing alone and unsupervised. She drowns. Author Katherine Paterson said she was inspired to write the book by a tragedy. Her son’s best friend, also a young girl, was struck by lightning. One of the 51 a year. What to say? Because all the arguments about statistics and infinitesimals I brought up earlier seem empty and syntactical by comparison. There’s some dark but vital philosophical connection between worldplay and death. Both are metaphysical ultimates: creation and destruction. Yin and yang. Part and parcel.

So yes, we can have all sorts of cost-benefit analyses about the statistics of abductions and accidents and traumas and even lightning strikes compared to the benefits of children having grit and creativity and independence. I think it clearly comes out on one side, and by a huge margin, too.

Fundamentally, however, this is not about solving some utilitarian calculation. That would imply that parents—that humans in general—have ultimate control over the fates of their loved ones. But we all know we don’t. Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in children from 5-14 in the USA. Accidents, primarily in the form of traffic accidents, are the leading cause.

If it’s not about some utilitarian calculation, it’s about essences. It is in the Aristotelian essence of children to engage in free-form joyful play, create imaginary worlds, form ad-hoc and complex adultless social structures, confront enemies and participate in alliances all on their own. At least two traits that turn out to be of vital importance for children—grit and creativity—are probably at their zenith during unstructured, unsupervised alone time. The ability to regulate your own attention, overcome obstacles, to fall down and get back up when no one is around to help you, the exercise of a verdant imagination in worldplay and imaginary friends, the pursuit of a goal that you invent/set yourself—they all happen sans omnipotent and stuck-in-the-real-world adults.

Even forget now this notion of maximizing “independent” psychological traits like grit and creativity in children. Consider that it is quite possible that the most holistic, psychologically Good-with-a-capital-G childhood takes a literary format. In the story the protagonist meets other children and interesting creatures, interacts with the alien machinery of the adult world, feels at night that limitless terror emanating from the obelisk dark of an open closet, plays like a creation-mad deity in their own internal worlds, adds notches to the doorway used to measure height, feels the smooth confidence of speed on a bike while soaring down a hill, watches alone as a rabbit gives birth at dusk in a scene overflowing with meaning. Our growing up should express a literary structure that, through the progression of grades and seasons and notches, one day reaches its final page. But, while it lasts, childhood should be a magical realist novel.

I hope my two nephews can experience something like this, instead of being djinns trapped and dulled by the constraints of our society. I want their essences free, out like pantheistic spirits in the back fields. My old plastic weapons and drawn maps have accumulated a thick layer of dust in the barn but are still serviceable, waiting for them. In the two’s imagination, after all, everything will be clean and new and just made.