By the time I was seven, I roamed fields and woods alone or with my older brother, endlessly. I spent countless hours with a friend, two years older, in our swimming hole half a mile from our farmhouse. We were told to be careful and what time to be back. It was not unusual for me to walk alone the one-mile trail through deserted woods in early morning half-light to wait for the school bus on a mostly deserted graveled county road. Once on the afternoon return journey, I ran for the sheer joy of it down the trail, rounded a curve and saw, too late to stop, the large snake sliding across my path. The jolt of terror-driven adrenalin let me easily do a combination high jump-long jump to clear him without slowing. My story caused no particular excitement at home.
My town kid schoolmates were similarly untethered. Most, without adult supervision, walked to school, home for lunch, back again, and then back home, some up to a mile or more each trip. Age had little influence. The route of several led winding through a thicket of bamboo and scrub growth. In the 12 years I went to school there, nobody ever got kidnapped, attacked, or otherwise damaged. And I was never aware of any particular parental worry about the possibility. Incidentally, cell phones were unheard of.
So why have the rules tightened so much today? Why are we all so afraid? Well, things are different now. There's more crime. More children get kidnapped, sexually abused, or otherwise hurt. The world, even our world of suburbs that look safe, has changed for the worse.
Except that none of that is true. Crime rates have fallen dramatically over several years. FBI reports of missing persons who are minors is at a record low and has been for decades, despite significantly increased population. According to a Washington Post blog, those reports have decreased 40 per cent since 1997. And of those reported, well above 90 percent were runaways, not kidnappings. In fact, child kidnappings of the kind you see in TV thrillers amounted to less than one per cent. Children are struck and killed by cars at a much lower rate, too, despite increased traffic, increased speed, and the prevalence of distracting electronics in automobiles.
The explanation for these facts? There seems to be no clear answer. Some might suggest that our high prison population is paying off, but crime rates have also dropped in countries that have eased sentences and reduced their prison populations. Some might say our children have become safer only because we have them on a shorter leash and under constant supervisions. Experts say there is no proof that this is the answer. Whatever the reason, your children are statistically much safer now than in the past.
Statistics, though, are gleaned from masses and don't necessarily dictate any one individual outcome. If your child is abused, kidnapped, or hit by a car, knowing that there was statistically little chance of that happening is not likely to reduce your pain. Still, it's worthwhile to know that the dangers we fear are not quite so overwhelming as they seem.
Then why are we so much more fearful? Possibly the combined effects and prevalence of news media, the 24-hour news cycle, an Internet that spews information non-stop, some of it half-baked, unproven, even deliberately misleading. Amber Alerts that reach around the country and make us feel that a child next door has just been kidnapped. Well-meaning efforts to inform, even when we're helpless to affect the situation, and that only make us more fearful. Or maybe we're just in a cycle that occurs naturally but will reverse itself someday.
Nobody is suggesting that we should remove all safeguards and hope that nothing bad will happen. But it might be good for those who are responsible for children to consider how they could gently loosen the reins slightly to allow those children to grow and learn to live freely and mostly unafraid. Because the facts show, as the Washington Post blogger says, "If it was safe enough for you to play unsupervised outside when you were a kid, it's even safer for your own children to do so today."
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."