(Amy Sussman / Getty)According to the Department of Transportation, the number of elementary and middle schoolers who walked or biked to school dropped from 48% to 13% between 1969 and 2009.
What's happening here?
The Economist reports that in the US, wealthy parents have a tendency toward becoming "helicopters," constantly buzzing about their children, ferrying them from one extracurricular activity to another, and never letting them escape from sight.
It's become so normalized that when kids are spotted without an adult, it's seen as a crime, as in the case of a Maryland family that's been under police investigation for letting their kids walk home from parks alone. Child Protective Services charged the parents with "unsubstantiated child neglect" in March, The Washington Post reports.
"My historical research on this question suggests that 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," Gray tells PRI. "This is a very, very serious issue."
Decades of research into what allows children to become successful and stable has revealed that autonomy is a defining factor. A young human needs to feel a degree of free agency in the way they navigate the world, otherwise they won't have the opportunity to become self-reliant or to develop the "grit" that's so closely associated with achievement.
What's worse is that children's declining autonomy is not a necessary response to a more dangerous world. That's a common misconception. Jennifer Senior of New York Magazine collected startling statistics showing how much safer things have gotten for kids in the US:
• The physical abuse of children fell by 55% from 1992 to 2011.
• Sexual abuse fell by 64% from 1992 to 2011.
• Abductions by strangers fell by 51% 1997 to 2012.
• Motor vehicle deaths for children under 13 years old fell by 43% in the past decade.
And as we've noted, America has become a much safer place for everyone since the 1990s — adults and kids both. But it's not just the last decade.
As The Washington Post reports, "there's never been a safer time to be a kid in America."
• In 1935, there were just under 450 deaths for every 100,000 kids between ages 1 and 4. Now there are 30 deaths per 100,000 kids in that age range.
• More than 800 child pedestrians were killed from being hit by a car in 1993. There were fewer than 250 such deaths in 2013.
• Reports on missing persons under age 18 have gone down 40% from 1997 to 2014.
Senior, the author of the best-selling "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood," says that the helicoptering isn't simply the result of parents being fearful for their children — it's a way of showing off their parental virtues to everybody else.
"It's become our new plumage, how we parent, peacockishly displayed on Facebook and in playgrounds and at birthday parties," she writes. "The result is a culture of surveillance and judgment rather than compassion and collaboration, and frankly, it’s exhausting — nor is it doing anyone one lick of good."
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