When my husband and I first visited Idaho prior to moving here from Washington state, we arranged to meet a local friend of my brother’s in a park. It was summer, hot already even though it was early, but the park was shady and quiet. Waiting for my brother’s friend, we sipped our drinks while our kids played alone on the playground.
But then they started arriving: Children in twos and threes. On bikes and on foot. Some with parents, but most—and this was significant—without. They swarmed the playground, enveloping our children. They began spontaneous games, making up rules as needed. Without supervision, they negotiated turn-taking on the monkey bars, who was supposed to go next at the water fountain, and who by rights should be “it.”
By the time my brother’s friend arrived, there was nothing he could tell us about life in Idaho that the presence of those children in the park had not already taught us: This was a place we wanted to be.
My husband and I had struggled for years in California, then Pennsylvania, and finally in Washington, to give our children what we believed to be normal developmental milestones. Everywhere we went, it seemed like small acts of childhood independence like waiting for a school bus, walking to school and riding a bike to a friend’s house had been slowly phased out of normal life in every town we lived in prior to moving here.
What has replaced them? Near constant adult supervision. Instead of stomping their feet to stay warm at the bus-stop in the morning, children climb directly from the idling cars of their parents onto the bus. Play dates are arranged weeks in advance in text exchanges coordinating the schedules of four working parents. Fully grown adults follow their children onto playground equipment rated for “12 and under” lest they let their progeny out of their sight for a single instant.
In the suburbs of Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia, the problem isn’t that the children do not play in their front yards; the problem is that they don’t even play in their backyards. And it is not because those backyards are unsafe but because their parents could be deemed “neglectful” simply for allowing their children to go outside beyond their direct purview.
And what do the children learn from all this parental anxiety? That the world is dangerous, when the truth is it is safer than it has ever been. And that they cannot trust themselves to do almost anything: safely cross a street, talk to an adult, or settle an argument with a peer.
But these are skills that are just as foundational as literacy or numeracy, and the communities that do not foster them early are failing their children.
After that first remarkable park visit, we started driving back west, already making plans to lay down roots in that remarkable place. While still in Idaho, both my husband and I noted the ubiquity of youth. It was not just the school-aged children who we saw in the park and on the streets. We had been served by teenagers at restaurants and car washes, and had seen middle-schoolers negotiate awkward moments of searching for change to make a purchase at gas stations or grocery stores. In Idaho, children are fully integrated into daily life.
It was only when juxtaposed with what we saw on our visit that it became obvious how much children have been shuffled off the stage of public life in much of America. There are few working teenagers in Seattle and no “good” parent would send their child out on errands in San Francisco. But those cities are the poorer for it.
When we speak of “free range children” we envision young ones at the park, but “low stakes” first jobs at ice cream parlors and fast food joints, along with small forays into the economy like picking up milk for your mom, are just as important to building secure children. We should protect these opportunities for older children just as vigorously as we defend their right to an education—since, in truth, an education is precisely what these types of jobs are.
After almost a year of lockdowns, I understand that most parents probably yearn for the old “surveillance style” parenting they were once free to employ out of the house. But as we return to normal, parents in cities and their surrounding suburbs should realize that what they considered “normal”—was anything but.
My experience of parenting in or near big cities has taught me that childhood independence isn’t just endangered; it’s nearly extinct. And just as we must set aside wetlands to protect endangered birds and educate the public about the value of threatened species, we must protect this precious time in our kids’ lives.
Last year in Utah the legislature passed the Reasonable Childhood Independence Act in order to protect “free range” parenting. Similar bills are up in South Carolina, Texas, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Idaho, all seeking to preserve the environments where independence still thrives.
We can only stem the tide of surveillance childhood by preserving childhood independence where it still exists. And maybe someday, independent children will return to the cities, like the once-endangered falcons who now roost on the eaves of skyscrapers and swoop through the air, exulting in their freedom.
Bridget Foley is a writer living in Boise. Her second novel, Just Get Home, will be published by Mira in April.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.