THE BLOG

Used To Be

06/11/2015 02:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016

The photo of a random collection of bicycles seemingly abandoned recklessly was accompanied on Facebook with a statement noting that, prior to cell phones and social media, this was how one found out where his or her friends might be.

Good fodder for "Throwback Thursday"? Not so fast -- things may be going back to the future.

While it's unlikely that the halcyon backyard days of the 1950s and '60s will return unblemished, recent high profile cases of so-called "free-range parenting" suggest change may be afoot.

Given federal crime information, not to mention a free, "undirected play" movement among education and mental health professionals, that may be a very good thing.

What do the stats tell us? According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, the overall rate of serious violent crime against youth ages 12 to 17 dipped 77 percent from 1994 to 2010, falling from 61.9 per 1,000 youth to 14.0 per 1,000. These victimizations include rape and other sexual assaults, robbery and aggravated assaults.

Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be careful. What it does mean is that there's likely not a sinister-looking stranger lurking behind every bush or playground.

But perhaps the police in Silver Spring, Maryland, beg to differ. There, Danielle and Sasha Meitiv's children, Rafi, age 10, and Dvora, age 6, were placed in the custody of Child Protective Services after they were spotted walking home alone (technically outlawed by the local government) from a nearby park. The parents had been previously cited for child neglect for allowing them to roam their neighborhood unaccompanied by an adult.

Not how it used to be.

Children used to go outside and play, make stuff up, goof around and generally have a good time, all the while learning important skills, such as sharing, group decision-making and conflict resolution. When we structure the activities, set the ground rules and determine the time, place and nature of just about every aspect of their day, kids lose pieces of their childhood bit by bit.

Michael Thompson, Ph.D., wrote about this trend in Camping Magazine, stating, "As a school consultant, I have watched the growing phenomenon of the over-scheduled child, particularly in affluent suburbs, and in independent and international schools. As a camp consultant, I have observed how many campers' parents monitor them extremely closely; one might say microscopically. Indeed, Ron Taffel, a psychologist in New York, reports that much of modern parenting involves meticulous time management of a child's packed schedule. This is a source of sadness for me and for many people who work with children."

In "The Case for Free-Range Parenting," published as an Opinion-Editorial in the New York Times, Clemens Wergin cites a study by the University of California, Los Angeles that found American children spend 90 percent of their free time at home (often playing video games or watching television). Not surprising, when they are active, they're being closely supervised by adults. The Op-Ed quotes Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, as saying, "We are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives" and warns that "this increases the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression and various other mental disorders."

Kristin van Ogtrop, managing editor of Real Simple magazine, points to overprotective parents in a humorous TIME magazine piece, "Free-Range Parenting 2.0," and refers to an April 2015 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family that found little connection between the amount of time moms spent with their 3- to 11-year-old (and 12- to 18-year-old) children and their academic, behavioral or emotional outcomes. Van Ogtrop says, "So now I'm convinced: if I want Junior to shed his anxieties and eventually go to college, I need to stop watching his every move. In fact, now that I know my three sons can be happy straight-A students who remember to chew with their mouths closed without constant vigilance from yours truly -- well, I am out of here."

When did so-called helicopter parenting take its roots? According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, it can be traced back to the day that 6-year-old Etan Patz vanished from a city street. That event led to an era of missing child reports, milk carton photographs and a general wave of fear among youngsters and their parents. Many of those children are the "worrywart" parents of today, even though, as the article points out, abductions by strangers remain rare, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

As was noted in a January 2007 Op-Ed, "The Boogeyman and the Bathwater," there is a way to give children space and ensure their safety. It suggested, among other things, staying involved even while letting go -- making sure you know where your children are and with whom they are spending time.

Perhaps finding that middle ground will return childhood to something like the way it used to be.