Why I treat my 7-year-old like a person instead of a tragedy waiting to happen

At age 10, my grandfather was herding cattle 20 miles through the mountains of rural Utah. It might take him all day, but he did it, and he did it by himself.

I was delivering newspapers through my suburban neighborhood when I was 8 years old. Sometimes in the dark of morning, sometimes with my older sister, but mostly on my own.

My oldest son—a 7-year-old kid growing up in Brooklyn—is hardly even allowed to go outside by himself. Not yet. And not because I don’t trust him or think he couldn’t handle himself. It’s simply because I don’t trust the neighbors not to call Child Protective Services (CPS) on me.

You could say that Brooklyn in 2014 is such a different time and place from rural Utah in the 1930s, and you would, in some ways, be right. Urban jungles pose different dangers than rural mountains and even suburban developments. (Though statistics show that, at least as far as crime goes, my kids are safer than I was when I was their age.) But kids are the same. Kids still need to grow up and have opportunities to take on responsibility, experience the world first-hand, and figure things out for themselves.

Last summer, after nearly a year of begging, I relented and gave my son the opportunity to stay home alone while I ran some quick errands around the neighborhood. I prepared him as well as I could for the experience, walking him through scenarios and drilling him on the rules that went along with this responsibility and privilege.

It was quite possibly the safest, least risky way for me to give him a little more space and freedom. And yet, when I wrote about our successful endeavor in increasing his independence, it became a controversy worthy of national and international attention.

Oddly enough, at the same time that I was fielding interview requests from the national media about whether leaving my son home alone for less than an hour was a safe thing to do, other stories were published about the expectations and allowances of children in other parts of the world. In Japan, for example, 7-year-olds are allowed to ride the subway by themselves. In Polynesian countries, children are given responsibility to care for each other.

It is not that American kids—whether in cities or suburbs or rural areas—are less capable than they were 80, or even 20, years ago. Kids still need to experience risk, to explore unfamiliar situations, to be given the opportunity to face danger. It’s how they learn to take responsibility for their actions and experience the consequences—which plays not only into their physical development, but affects their mental, social, and emotional growth as well.

But our culture now treats children both as fragile beings needing constant supervision and as unintelligent creatures incapable of learning to manage themselves. We deprive our kids of these opportunities because it is “neglectful” or “irresponsible” or even “lazy.” Or we put chores and work in the same category as “child labor” with all the connotations that comes with it. Meanwhile, our children’s thirst for knowledge and experience is quashed by fearfulness and uncertainty.

In April, Hanna Rosin wrote for the Atlantic about playgrounds and how and why they’ve changed over the years. In the ’80s, many playgrounds were seen as too dangerous and all the sharp edges and hard surfaces were removed to make way for squishy rubber and rounded plastic. But the new design didn’t save kids from getting hurt—it just kept them from learning to be more careful.

A similar thing could be said for why our society is so paranoid about letting our children out of our sights—for why a 7-year-old home alone or a 9-year-old on the subway have become, over the past couple of decades, “tragedies waiting to happen.” It isn’t that our houses or our streets or our neighborhoods are more dangerous than they were before, it’s that we have a different perspective on them. We see sharp edges and hard surfaces and instead of thinking of them as obstacles to be managed and mastered, we see them as dangers that need to be eliminated.

Raising children, and growing up, have never been risk-free endeavors. But why is it that we now see danger everywhere, so much so that even letting my child ride his bike half a block ahead of me elicits hand-wringing and head-shaking from passing pedestrians? Holly Schiffrin, professor of psychology specializing in infant and child development and parenting education at University of Mary Washington, attributes it at least partially to the sensational news coverage that saturates our society.

We see news stories that run for weeks on TV and fill our social media feeds and the grocery store magazine stands and we get the sense that the world is out to get our children, that nobody can be trusted, that we must keep our kids under lock and key or hold their hands until… until they won’t let us any more? Until they pull away in frustration and run out into the world completely unprepared and inexperienced? That seems to me much more neglectful and dangerous than teaching my child to properly use a knife or allowing him to go to the grocery store around the corner.

And, in fact, Schiffrin’s research points to some of the dangers: children of parents who are over-involved—who may not be given an opportunity to do things on their own because their parents want to “support” them every step of the way—are more depressed and anxious, feel less competent and confident, and have a harder time relating to others than their more independent peers by the time they get to college.

There has to be a safer way to do this—a way to give our kids opportunities to learn and explore, to solve problems and even to get hurt—without getting in their way or getting called in by CPS. The way we’re doing it now, where any child who doesn’t have an adult watching over them every minute of their lives is in danger, isn’t going to develop into the society of confident, capable, and resourceful leaders we need.

You can follow Lizzie on Twitter at @lizzieheiselt. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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