Family

Drop-Off Nation

Today's car culture blunts children's independence

Vehicles are sardined into a line, bumper to bumper, or crammed into no-parking zones, median strips, and handicapped spaces.

Inside the vehicles, drivers wait, either talking on cellphones or staring into space.

Is this a rock concert or rush-hour traffic exiting a major city?

Nope. It’s just another day here in drop-off nation, where parents routinely drop off or collect their kids from school, practice or other activities — running what is now essentially door-to-door livery service for America’s kids.

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Today, our children don’t walk by themselves. Kids and parents are pressured by their own schedules (or their fears). No one can be late for practice, or the game, or violin lessons, or the PTA meeting. No one can get lost or take a detour. And Junior sure as heck can’t be trusted to get himself where he needs to be on time.

As free playtime nosedives for American kids, the amount of time they’re spending inside a car is spiking.

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As free playtime nosedives for American kids, the amount of time children are spending inside a car is spiking. Many cars now have televisions and Bose surround-sound systems, a pretty sweet ride for today’s kids.

Another reason parents are driving kids everywhere, all the time, is plain fear.

“I admit it. I drive my kids everywhere,” said a mom of three boys, ages 13, 11, and 10, from her home 30 miles west of Philadelphia. “I worry constantly about the kids walking. What if some dangerous stranger pulls up and pretends he needs directions? The world is a scary place now. I feel like the kids are so precious, and I just can’t take the risk. It’s a compromise. Lose the freedom but keep the safety.”

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But is the world really a scarier place? The FBI reports that crime rates, including murder, were down in 2014, according to the annual Uniform Crime Report. Child abductions are also exceedingly rare, with “the vast majority of ‘missing’ children taken by family members, often when one divorced parent absconds with a child during legally sanctioned visitation,” according to Discovery.com.

Still, one Boston-area mom who drives her kids everywhere questions flirting with any risk at all when it comes to safety.

“Yes, but what if you are that one?” she asked.

“It’s crazy now,” said Lenore Skenazy, author, guest speaker, and founder of Free-Range Kids, whose mission as stated on her website is “fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.”

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“Parents have traded in one extremely unlikely fear — fear of their child’s abduction — for a fear of something that is actually far more likely to happen, yet still very unlikely – their kid dying in a car crash,” Skenazy said in an interview with LifeZette. “What happened to the experience of childhood freedom? We treat our children like Fed-Ex packages — pick ‘em up, and drop ‘em off.”

One 29-year-old Nashville musician agreed.

“I was probably raised in the last true walk-around-town era,” he told LifeZette. “We walked and rode our bikes everywhere. The freedom was such an important part of being a kid. The sad thing is,” he said, “today’s kids don’t even know what they’re missing. It’s a shame.”

How unusual is it to see kids outside walking alone for more than a minute without parental supervision? So unusual that occasionally parents have to wrangle with police and child-welfare agencies for even allowing it.

In a case that made national news, a Maryland couple was in trouble — twice — for allowing their kids to walk around the neighborhood alone. Montgomery County Police and county Children’s Protective Services have jointly investigated the Meitivs of Silver Spring, Maryland, for allowing their children, Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6, the freedom of unsupervised walking.

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Alexander and Danielle Meitiv say they know where their children are, and are allowing them independence.

In the second instance, the police picked up the kids a few blocks from home at a park, and they sat in a patrol car for 2 1/2 hours before being taken about 10 miles away to the Children’s Protective Services offices in Rockville, Maryland.

The parents became alarmed when their children didn’t return home. Instead, they were in the custody of Child’s Protective Services.

Is it a big deal that childhood has changed so much, from a time when kids roamed neighborhoods, didn’t check in every five minutes, and developed skills all on their own, without Mom and Dad helicoptering in the background?

“They’ve been missing since 6 o’clock,” the Meitivs told USA Today. “Somebody called 911, the police called CPS, they decided to bring the kids here (to Child Protective Services), and they didn’t call us.”

To take their children home, the Meitivs had to sign a safety plan that prohibits them from leaving their children unattended, they told USA Today. In May, the couple was cleared in the first case of “unsubstantiated neglect,” but they are still under investigation for the second event.

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Skenazy has one possible solution for such events.

“I offer a membership card that parents can print from my website that reads, ‘I AM NOT LOST. I’m a free-range kid!'” she said. “If there are questions from inquiring, and no doubt well-meaning adults, the kid can present the card.”

Is it a big deal that childhood has changed so much, from a time when kids roamed neighborhoods, didn’t check in every five minutes, and developed skills all on their own, without mom and dad helicoptering in the background? Is it a big deal that we drive them everywhere, and are always available to them?

“My historical research on this question suggests there’s never really been a time or place in history, aside from times of slavery and intense child labor, when children have been less free than they are today in our society,” Boston College psychologist and “Free to Learn” author Peter Gray told Public Radio International. “This is a very, very serious issue.”

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