In the 1990s when my oldest was 10, we let our four children walk five blocks to school. All of our neighbors were amazed as they shook their heads at our "wanton" behavior, but we noticed they watched for the four little Emmetts and also added their children to the parade. We live in Center City Philadelphia and did not let any of our children go places alone until middle school. However, we did let them do things in the neighborhood with a sibling or a friend and without an adult. My wife and I had went everywhere by ourselves in the mid 50's: my wife in Atlantic City and myself in Wilmington. When we were first and second graders, we took ourselves to school, Hebrew school, and even to the movies.
Now this is called "free range parenting," but we, and our parents before us, just thought of it as giving our children appropriate responsibility and letting them grow up. We grew up in the 1950's. Life was dangerous, but parents were not worried about it since no one thought about life as being really dangerous. And in fact, life is in many ways safer now for children. In the 1950s, six people died for every 100,000,000 miles vehicles travelled, now one person dies per 100,000,000 miles. The number of homicides in the United States was half of today, but so was the population. The number of children in the U.S. killed by strangers was about the same as it is today – about 50 per year. That compares to about 1,000 children killed by their friends and family. That is one child killed by a stranger for every six million people in the US versus one for every three million people in the 1950s.
In the U.S., about 2,000 children died of polio, and 1,000 died of measles and chicken pox in the 50s – diseases now eliminated by vaccines (if people get vaccinated). In addition, over 10,000 children had paralyzation, deafness, blindness and brain damage from infections that we have practically eliminated plus German measles and Hemaphilus influenza (epiglottis and meningitis).
Since 1963, when children stopped walking to school and stopped going to the playground themselves, they have gotten tremendously overweight. I cannot prove causation; I can only show very strong correlation, but I think not walking is causative.
So now there are free range parenting web sites and groups trying to get parents to loosen the apron strings a little. I would also like playgrounds to be a little more dangerous so children will actually play on the equipment. Where are all the manual merry-go-rounds? Yes, a child could get hurt, but they sure made kids run themselves into physical exhaustion.
I went to visit a friend in Los Angeles 30 years ago and we went to the gym where they had valet parking so the exerciser did not have to walk across the parking lot. I could not stop laughing, but no one in LA saw the humor. I think we have to make our kids walk across those parking lots and start to be independent of us and dependent on their own abilities. Free range parenting just strikes me as normal parenting.