‘Free-range’ parenting: How safe are kids in today’s world?

The Maryland couple who made news for allowing their children to walk to the park unsupervised have drawn attention to a parenting style that advocates greater independence for kids. The debate has also raised the question of just how dangerous today's world is for children. 

The Maryland parents whose children were detained by police Sunday for walking to the park on their own have reignited debate over a parenting style that advocates greater independence for kids.

Critics have said the incident, which involved two unsupervised children, ages 10 and 6, constitutes child neglect. Others, including the pair’s parents, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, have argued that kids need to learn responsibility through experience. One major question the debate raises is: How safe are children, really, in today’s world?

Data suggests that kids are safer now than ever before. In the United States, rates for child mortality, child abductions, homicides, and sexual assault are down. And despite the presence of terrorist groups and religious extremists worldwide, civilian killings and interstate wars – both of which have devastating effects on children – have declined considerably over the years.

The key, experts say, is to take a broader perspective.

“To really understand how the world is changing, you have to look at the big picture,” Max Roser, an economist at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford University, told The Takeaway last year. “You have to zoom out from the current events to understand in which direction the world is changing.”

For instance, US child mortality rates have fallen by almost half since 1990, according to Child Trends, which analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control. Overall, missing persons reports are down by 35 percent since 1997, and the odds of a child pedestrian getting hit by a car dropped by 45 percent between 2003 and 2012.

In their Slate op-ed, “Why the world is not falling apart,” Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack looked at global figures. They found that of 88 countries with reliable data, 67 saw a decline in homicide in the last 15 years. Average world homicide rates also dropped from 7.1 per 100,000 people in 2003 to 6.2 in 2012.

The number of wars between states have also plummeted since the end of World War II, and except for occasional spikes such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the trend lines for mass killings have “pointed sharply downward” as well, Mr. Pinker and Mr. Mack added.

“Never mind the headlines,” they wrote. “We’ve never lived in such peaceful times.”

Which isn’t to say that child safety – or safety in general – is no longer an issue. Pinker and Mack noted that even the best data will have missing pieces, and that averages tend to conceal the worst figures.

There’s also the danger of reducing to cold, hard numbers the horror of having a child killed or abducted.

“One missing child is one too many,” actor John Walsh has been known to say. In 1981, Mr. Walsh’s 6-year-old son was kidnapped from a Sears department store and found murdered two weeks later.

Still, The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham wrote, the data supports the argument for “free range” parenting, especially in this day and age.

Kids are dying less. They're being killed less. They're getting hit by cars less. And they're going missing less frequently, too. The likelihood of any of these scenarios is both historically low and infinitesimally small.

The Meitivs and other parents who support a more independent parenting style agree.

“At no other time in human history have people underestimated children’s competency as Americans do today,” Danielle Meitiv told The Christian Science Monitor.

“Freedom and responsibility go together,” she added. "They get responsibility because we give them chances to stretch and grow. That's how you learn."

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