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O is for . . . Outside (Or, the Real Reason My Kids Can’t Go Out and Play)

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When you’re a mom, people are always telling you to “trust your gut.” Indeed, I like to think my gut has gotten rather dependable over the years. It’s helped me discern when my daughter’s boo-boos require kisses, versus NASCAR-worthy sprints to the ER. It’s told me when my son was ready to wean, my daughter to ride the school bus. It’s even whispered that I could take a step back, letting my daughter have her first sleepover. There is one situation, however, where my gut seems to be failing me. And that is the highly charged issue of when my daughter can play outside by herself.

To be honest, this one has me stumped. My kindergartner wants to play alone in our small patch of yard bordering the street, and I’m uncomfortable. I’m not exactly sure why. My daughter knows not to talk to strangers or step onto the road. Yet phrases like “stranger danger” stick in my head like an unshakable Taylor Swift song, and I’m a wreck. What if a strange man approaches her with a lost dog, a lollipop, and a limo full of My Little Ponies, beckoning her inside? What if she chases a ball into the street? What if a spaceship lands and she’s abducted by child-loving aliens, never to be seen again?

Some of these worries are legitimate; others are based on fear (orThe X-Files). Yet behind these concerns lurks a larger, more troublesome truth: I’m afraid of what others will think. And, even worse, what they might do.

I recently read an article about parents being arrested for “questionable” decisions: A mom in Connecticut leaving her 11-year-old in the car while she ran into a store. A Georgia mom letting her 9-year-old play in the park while she worked at McDonald’s. Frankly, stories like these frighten me. Because, suddenly, it’s not just my gut deciding whether my daughter is old enough to finger-paint outside while I cook dinner. Suddenly, I have to worry about another adult seeing her and, instead of knocking on the door, frantically dialing 9-1-1 as though my kid were being chased by an ax-wielding sex offender. And so I’m faced with a dilemma: keep my child “safely” inside, or let her go and put us all in danger.

But how much danger is she in, really? According to Radley Balko, blogging about the “criminalization of parenthood” for the Washington Post, the data doesn’t support the paranoia. He points out that crimes against children are at a historic low, and most child abduction is carried out by family members, friends, or acquaintances — not strangers. While the world may seem scarier than when we were kids, much of that is perception, not fact.

Indeed, things were different back then. I rode my bike to friends’ houses, played tag with kids on the block. These things were considered normal. Recently, I watched an old Brady Bunch episode, in which Bobby went to a store to buy a doll for Cindy, unbeknownst to his family. Today, the kindly store owner would call the cops (after taking Bobby’s money, of course), and they would promptly arrest Carol Brady for child neglect. Carol’s theme-song picture would be a mugshot. And the viewers? We’d be online, leaving anonymous comments that all six kids (and maybe Alice) should be removed by Social Services. How times have changed.

And yet, I can’t pretend I’m immune to this trend. Recently, a friend was questioned by the police for leaving her 9-year-old in the car outside the grocery store. When my husband told me the story, my knee-jerk response was, “You can’t do that!” Apparently, I’ve joined the bandwagon. I don’t want to be that mom. I don’t want everyone who walks by my home to pity the poor, unsupervised child playing outside of it, who’s clearly going to grow up to be a street thug, or a politician. I don’t want to end up a story on a news site, followed by hostile comments wondering what I was thinking, who let me have kids, and who selected my wardrobe.

And so, that inner voice that tells me what’s best for my kids has become a chorus. I find myself parenting by consensus, trying to follow rules I don’t fully grasp about what’s “right” for my family. Whatever my motivation, I don’t think my daughter is ready to play outside alone yet. I could argue that I’m following my gut — my natural instinct to protect my children — instead of following the crowd. But the truth is, I’m not so sure. Somewhere along the way, my gut was drowned out by angry strangers with judgments and cell phones. And, somewhere along the way, I may have become one of them.

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45 Comments

  1. This is all so, so true. I find myself judging other moms, but when I stop and think about it, I started playing outside alone probably around the age of 6 or 7. And I’m talking alllll day. My parents had a creek and woods surrounding their home. Lot’s of potential “what if’s” but I’m okay.

    So, while part of me is torn in that we should prevent what is totally avoidable…at the same time, what happened to trusting parents and letting them PARENT. We complain that kids aren’t held to the same disciplinary standards that they used to be, but do we instill responsibility in them at a young age like we used to? I’m not saying let’s let our littlest ones roam free, but I hope that you catch my drift.

    Just the other day when we got back from church, my three year old daughter wanted to play in the sandbox. I had to make lunches for everyone, so I let her go. I can watch her directly from my window, and I did as much. She did great. She was out there for maybe twenty minutes before she decided that she wanted to come back inside.

    I’m like you – if someone saw that and saw her but didn’t see me, what would they do? Would they walk over and see if she is okay or would they just knee-jerk and call the police??

    I’m rambling. I’m sorry!

    Great post, as always. :) Gets the wheels in my head turning!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree, this is such a charged issue. You want your kids to be independent, but the idea of granting that independence is scary for so many reasons. I suppose these types of issues will only get harder as they get older. Thanks again for the comment!

    • I used to love being left alone in the car as a kid because it meant I had 20 minutes to myself while my mom did whatever errand she was doing. It was “me” time, she’d leave the keys and I’d turn up the radio and sing. Nowadays I’d probably be crushing candies on my phone. But still, I can’t believe that would be a crime now.

  2. What is so sad is that you are right, you want the kids to be independent and not afraid all the time, yet fear is transmitted, and here you are, transmitting yours (I mean whatever mother who is transmitting it). So, in attempting to shelter a child from danger, it is possible to shelter her from becoming a full person. It is a quandary–you have to go with your gut! These days, as you say, that is less and less possible.

  3. My boys are 7 & 10 and they are not allowed to play outside in my yard without an adult supervising. My 10 year old is 2 belts away from a black belt and I know he could kick some serious butt if ever put in that situation, but my little one couldn’t and I don’t trust people. Plain and simple.

  4. It’s such a tough balance to find. Our boys are 9,7,5,4 so there’s not a lot of independence for them right now, and that’s just fine with me!

  5. I’m really loving your blog. In no way do I want to be a helicopter mom. Some of the highlights of my childhood included riding mountain bikes in the trails behind our house, catching frogs, and jumping in puddles and getting covered in mud. It was only to pre-dinner when I would see my mom briefly as she ushered me to the shower, anti-bacterial soap in hand (I was playing with frogs after all). Fast-forward to present day, I haven’t the slightest idea how I will be able to do this with my kids. My stomach is doing flip-flops at the mere thought. We do live in an apartment in more of an urban area… Still, there is a point where my kids should be able to play outside in our courtyard, and I haven’t the slightest idea when I will be able to stomach it. Please keep us updated :) Thanks for the great post!!!

    • Thanks, Alana! It’s so hard to imagine our kids not having the great experiences we did as kids. But it seems so much more difficult today. I have great memories of being out until dinner as well. I think my kids would LOVE playing with frogs (although I’d be armed with anti-bacterial soap as well)!

  6. It is so different now compared to when we grew up, yet I still want to give my children those experiences! Also I work in news so I CONSTANTLY hear all the bad things that can happen… so I am ‘THAT’ mom. lol

  7. I don’t care how old my kids are, they don’t play outside without supervision.. and my oldest is 16. I used to play outside or go to the park by myself; but I just couldn’t dream of letting my kids do that now.

  8. I am going to have to bookmark this and share. When I meet new clients (I work with kids with special needs) I often find that the parents are unsure to listen to their gut or to all the differing opinions they get. I say go with the gut.

  9. I let my kids go outside and play in the front, but i do like to keep an ear or an eye on them.. my daughter especially she is 9 and knows not to do anything crazy and if she is in trouble to scream and kick.

  10. If you are the slightest bit uncomfortable with it, for whatever reason, don’t do it. She can wait until mommy is more secure.

  11. This is such a great topic and post. I have often wondered the same thing for my child. When is the best age to let your child to play alone outside? My son is only 1, but I know the issue is going to come up before I know it. I read this amazing article awhile ago (of course I can’t find it now!) about the new documentary coming out about “The Land” a junk playground that encourages children to take risks and play without adult supervision. It discussed how too many children are held back in the name of “safety” when, instead, we are really do a disservice to our children. Very interesting and something to think about!

  12. This was so well written. This is a tough issue and such a reality of our society today, whether we like it or not. I’ve thought about this too and ultimately boil down to, follow your trusty gut. Unfortunately there are things we can’t do even if we would normally think it’s ok, and that’s sad. But as far as playing outside alone, I think you know when your child is ready and if it’s a good idea or not. It depends on where you live and how close to the road it is, etc. For us we live in a culdisac (sp?) And we own the land back there so I’m not as worried but I still am,always outside with them because you just never know. They’re only 2 though haha… as they get older it’ll be an issue to explore more so I’m interested to see what people have to say. Great thought provoking post!

  13. Currently we live off a country road and our yard is huge, the front isn’t fenced in.. I’ve told my kids about stranger danger, but they’re just too nice and will believe someone like that. So I just make sure they play where I can see them or go to the back yard.

  14. I agree that our perception of danger these days is probably worse than the reality, but you can never be too safe. I think it boils down to the child, the environment and your gut. As far as worrying about other parents judging you, remember that you’ll never win that one. You may impress one person by doing one thing and mortify another doing the exact same thing! All that matters is doing what feels right to you! Great post!

  15. our perception of danger these days is probably worse than what it use to be back in the good old day, However, you can never be too safe

  16. It really has changed since the time of our growing up. Everything is more “dangerous” and everyone is more “fearful” of the unknown.

  17. I lived in Brooklyn NY where we heard gunshots every night, yet I wasn’t afraid of my kids playing outside in the park with my supervision and sometimes without. Here in CO, it’s a lot safer and my kids don’t want to go outside, strangely enough, well everyone but my toddler who is the totally outdoor baby. I totally get where you’re coming from though, it can be scary. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

  18. No matter if crimes against children are at an historic low – that does not negate the need for caution. Trust your gut!

  19. I remember living in the Bronx and playing outside at a very young age. My parents never seamed to worry about me or my sister. We more closely watched out for our daughter as she was growing up. My grandchildren will not go outside without me. Not sure when that will change.

  20. This really is a tricky balance of giving their independence. we trust our kids but do we trust the environment? I think I am going to watch my son play outside for a very long time to come.

  21. I have heard of these cases where parents are arrested for leaving their kids in cars, or letting them play in the park. My thoughts are that I was babysitting 3 children ages, 4 and 2(twins) when I was 10 years old. If I could be responsible for other human lives, I could be left in a car alone.
    The way people judge parents lately is abhorrent. And honestly the only place I have seen this kind of stuff is in the States, not any of the other places we have traveled. It’s such a sad situation. :( Ok, off my soapbox. I say if you are comfortable with your daughter playing in your front yard while you are in the house, do it.

  22. It’s scary as heck having your kid seriously injured on your watch. Even scarier having them get abducted. I don’t think that fear ever goes away, and I doubt I could just let my kids go out without keeping an eye on them.

  23. Great post! This is something I’m still trying to figure out myself. It’s one thing to let them play in your yard, but soon, they’ll want a little more freedom. You want to give it to them, but not too much. You want to give them boundaries, but not be overprotective or they will resent you. So many things to consider.

  24. Thank you for sharing this! I don’t have kids yet (I’m due next month) but I really enjoyed reading your post about this subject!

  25. I almost spit my coffee up when I read ” limo full of My Little Ponies”….that is VERY tempting…lol. You never know when someone with malicious intentions is going to target a child. Not too far from where I live, two Amish sisters were kidnapped from the stand where they sell fruit. As more details come out in the case, they believe a puppy was used in the abduction…and one of the girls was 12 years old.

  26. My boys are 15 and 10. The 10 year old is just now allowed to go out and play by himself and we have a fenced in yard. I just don’t trust people, plain and simple. I hear it everyday on the news about some child somewhere who has had horrific things happen to it and I don’t want my child to become a statistic.

  27. These days, you really need your own lawn or space for them to play. We don’t have nannies to keep them supervised so its either they play inside or within the frontyard. Same as Maggieblog2, we can’t trust people these days.

  28. i think it depends on the age. my oldest is 11 and i’m just starting to let her do things on her own a little at a time.

  29. Truth is that there are people who are not trustworthy. And some parents are careless with their kids. That is why good parents like us kind of get paranoid on what’s gonna happen to our kids outdoors.

    For my child’s safety, I really don’t leave her in the car. And if I do yard work and she wants to ride her bike in the driveway, I make sure she’s within my sight.

    Mhar Mg
    http://www.brightbundles.com/

  30. The 11 year old in the car sounds silly to me, especially. 11 year olds are allowed to be home alone.

  31. It’s definitely a hard decision. I’m glad my backyard is fenced in. Our street is way too busy and there are a lot of parked cars on the street. So I am always outside when my kids are riding their bikes and scooters. Since I have a toddler, I can’t let him out of my sight for a second.

  32. What’s sick is that people can call cps on you for letting your kids play outside and at that moment they become the very predator taking your child away from you that we fear.

  33. Part of the problem is a lack of community as well. When my mom was a kid, there were dozens of moms at home during the day, all kind of keeping a general eye on the neighborhood kids. There were old folks on front porches or stoops that helped keep an eye out. People knew their neighbors.
    When I was a kid, a lot of this was already gone. Most houses were empty during the day, as both patents worked, and older siblings, like mine, were not interested in keeping an eye on their own brothers and sisters, much less other people’s kids whom they were not getting paid to watch. We knew a few of our neighbors.
    Fast forward to my kids, most people at home during the day are either sleeping because of shift work, elderly and infirm and often in a great deal of pain, or grandparents with arms full of grandbabies trying to help save their own kids on child care expenses. People don’t go outside anymore. They are too tired. I know, barely, the neighbors directly on each side of us, I don’t have any of their phone numbers, they don’t know my kids names, in part because we hardly ever see each other except in brief passing. I’ve given one of them extra pecans from our tree and he has lent us a few tools here and there. Same with the others.
    We have a five foot chain link fence which is the only reason my kids can play in the yard unsupervised. There is no one else to look out for my kids except me and my husband. And I think many, many neighborhoods, both urban and country are experiencing the same trend. Neighbors can live by each other for years and still be strangers. Drivers don’t watch for kids. And those who do decide to look in from time to time too often do it with judgement rather than affection and goodwill. It’s sad, but that’s just the way it is.

    • Thanks, Judy, this is a really thoughtful comment. When I was kid, there were so many kids outside, that you felt safe. Now there are no kids outside (except with their parents), that those kids who are outside stand out like sore thumbs. The world as you describe it is unfortunately realistic…and sad. Makes me miss the 1970s and ’80s (never thought I’d say that!). Thanks for the great comment!

  34. Too avoid leaving an insanely lengthy comment with my thoughts I am going to keep it short: Great post!

  35. Thanks for sharing this at the #WWDParty.

  36. Wow i just stumbled upon this blog through a FB post and must say i’m kinda shocked. I’m from Germany and maybe things are different in the US but i don’t really believe that. When i was a child i used to play outside alone at a very young age, lets say 5. I played with dirt, climbed up high trees, later played in the woods or in an old rotten windmill…and probably did some pretty dangerous things. I walked home from school on my own in second grade. The first 4 years of school i would stay in after school care til 4 and then walk home and go out to play or visit my grandparents. My mother wouldn’t know where i’m or what i’m up to most of the time, also cos she was working til 6. I mean, how do you do it anyway? Aren’t you at work? Aren’t your kids allowed to explore their surroundings with their friends? Is their world confined to your back- or front yard and even then you will be there to watch them? It would have annoyed the hell out of me if my mother would have done that. Most of the time i would just say i’m out with such-and-such and if she asked what we would be doing or where we would go we would just say we don’t know yet or make something up. And whats that about people calling the police if they see a child on its own? Thats pretty weird.

    • Hi Frieda, I’m so glad you found this blog! You make a lot of great points. It’s interesting to hear a non-US perspective. Things were definitely different a generation ago. I’m not sure if the world has changed, or if we’ve changed — as someone said, lack of community and knowing our neighbors, lack of extended family nearby, etc. I hope that this trend doesn’t keep kids from becoming independent and free-spirited. It’s a tough balancing act for parents these days. Thanks for your comment!

  37. And I don’t believe that things in regard to trusting people have changed so dramatically. The difference is that we hear much more when something happens somewhere cos of the news and the internet. I tend to agree with Judy, that lack of community is one problem but it’s also that parents these days are panicking way too much and are control freaks. I mean, look, back then there were no mobile phones. Parents couldn’t just call or track their kids at all times. And they lived. You lived. And i bet you had loads of fun too. And a shout out to all the anti-bacteriell soap mums out there…there’s this saying: “Dirt cleans the stomach” and strengthens the immune system.

  38. Author, thank you for bringing this to topic to the forefront.
    Frieda – thank you for your perspective. I agree wholeheartedly.

    It is something that is up to us, the parents. We must push into the community. We should let our kids go to the plaza with their friends…because when a group of kids are out and around they are less likely to get hassled.

    Also, the stranger danger stuff is way overblown. The stats are in and child abductions by strangers are very rare. More likely with family members.

    We are living in the good old days because it is up to us to make it that way. Ignore the hype and fight back against people who call the cops because a 9 year old is in a car. No one should be calling the cops. Reach out and talk to the person face to face. No need to bring in authorities into a situation you have no idea about.

    The more we are outside, the more our kids are outside on their own, the more comfortable all of us will be with each other and every one in the community will share the responsibility of keeping an eye out for each other.

  39. I actually have a post written on paper about my fear of the outside and why I’m so protective. I plan on typing it out soon, but it’s a hard story to share.

    In my old neighborhood, all the parents knew each other and if one of us wasn’t out there with the kids, another was.
    I felt secure letting my kids play outside in our little culdesac back home in IL, I hope to feel the same here.
    At this point in time we (my husband and I) go outside and play with them :)
    We’re still the new kids on the block.
    XOXO

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