Each child is different, but the age of 12 usually marks a turning point. These preteens usually see themselves as too old to take part in most activities with mom and dad, but their parents are afraid of giving them too much freedom. When adolescence sets in, young people think they are ready to do anything on their own, after years and years of being babied. For parents, the key is to find a balance - but it's essential to start loosening the leash long before that.
Parents perceive the streets as being dangerous, and fewer and fewer kids are allowed to play in them without adult supervision. And nowadays, children rarely to go to school alone, something that was very common decades ago. The shopping mall has become a refuge, where parents feel comfortable dropping off their kids; a closed, monitored microcosm that appears to be risk-free. This is partly due to increasingly hostile cities, which are designed for cars and are not very child-friendly. But it's also the result of a culture of fear. Even parents who find it natural to give their children more freedom often get the idea that they're doing something wrong when they see how much other people protect their children. Overwhelmed by guilt for giving them a level of autonomy that is sometimes highly recommended - according to many experts we talked to for this report - they start overprotecting their kids, too.
The mall is now a refuge, where parents are happy to leave their kids
"Today, parents do a lot more for kids, keeping them cut off from social life"
"Statistically, a minor would have to spend 750 years outside to get kidnapped"
With his project La Città dei Bambini (The City of Children), the Italian educationalist Francesco Tonucci has set out to make the city the welcoming place for kids that it used to be. In England, for example, 90 percent of all children between the ages of six and 11 went to school unaccompanied in the 1960s. This percentage has gradually gone down, to around just five percent at present. "There is an almost total loss of autonomy," he says. Tonucci argues that this trend must be reversed.
"It's a paradox. When I was a kid 60 years ago, we knew practically nothing about children. It was a period of waiting. The main thing was to take care of them so they would reach adulthood, which was the important age. In this situation, kids were allowed to do all kinds of things. They weren't called rights, but they were permitted to live in and use spaces that adults didn't and had enough free time to do so. They played with their friends without any direct supervision. Today, the attitude of adults has been to do a lot more for kids, keeping them in reserved spaces that are cut off from social life. They are confined to places such as gardens, which are almost always gated with bars to protect them, swings and slides, always identical, and they have to be supervised at all times. Now that we know how important childhood is, that the early years are essential for the rest of a person's life, we're excluding them; there's a kind of fear of childhood because we don't want them to be in the middle of grown-up things," he says.
There is also another paradox: the more technology and the more control that parents have over their children, with cellphones that can even locate them via GPS, the less freedom of movement they are given. This can also happen in the case of parents who don't give their children enough emotional support or pay much attention to them, except for controlling their whereabouts.
One of the goals of Tonucci's project is to promote child autonomy by sending them to school on their own, with the residents of an area participating. The idea is to make shopkeepers and neighbors aware of the route to school so that students can get there unaccompanied by an adult starting from the first years of elementary school. If a child needs to use their phone, for example, they can do so.
Experiments have been carried out in several schools, all of them with positive results, according to Tonucci. In the city of Pesaro, Italy, the project was implemented in about 10 schools. For eight years, hundreds of kids have walked to school alone without a single incident. "In the same circumstances, when their parents took them, there were eight accidents. That's not a lot, but it's more. Some parents think that their children are stupid, that they're going to throw themselves under a car if they aren't careful. But they know how to take care of themselves very well if given the chance," says Tonucci. What's more, he argues that it is necessary for youngsters to take risks in order to develop as individuals... and this must be done without adult supervision. "When I'm with my grandchildren, I don't let them do certain things because I get nervous and think that something could happen to them, but I know that they've got to experiment. And for that, it's better if neither I nor their parents are around," he adds.
How much time kids spend in the street or the neighborhood also depends on income levels, according to Waltraud Müllauer-Seichter, a professor of social anthropology from Spain's Open University (UNED). "Higher-income families tend to use spaces around them less. They are more likely to take their kids to school far away and spend their free time outside of their own neighborhood," he says. Many people from such backgrounds, according to his research, grow up with an exaggerated image of the city's hostility that is difficult to reverse. This, combined with the proliferation of video games and the increase in time spent on the internet, gives rise to a series of sedentary habits that involve little or no social contact.
One of the obstacles encountered by parents, even those who might be inclined to reverse this trend, is social rejection. Five years ago, Lenore Skenazy became famous as "the worst mom in America." The media gave her this title for letting her nine-year-old son go to school alone on the New York City subway. It wasn't an oversight. The mother was totally aware of what she was doing, and she rebelled against how overprotected children have become. She even started a blog about the subject, called Free Range Kids, in which she argues that the city's crime rate is no higher than it was in the 1960s, so there is no reason to keep kids holed up at home. "Statistically, a minor would have to spend 750 years in the street in order to get kidnapped," she argues.
The philosopher José Antonio Marina, president of the Parents' University, has a slightly different perspective. The slogan of his institution is that in order to educate a child, it doesn't take a family, but an entire tribe. That's why he is also convinced that cities must be made more welcoming to children. But Marina thinks it will be very difficult to make the streets totally safe for kids again. According to him, "cities have been deteriorating, some of them faster than others, starting with big cities, although every case is different." "Barcelona is not the same as Madrid. In Barcelona, much more has been done to protect the neighborhoods. Santander, which used to be a great place for kids to play, has seen its public spaces invaded by cars," he says.
The solution he proposes is to create more spaces for children. One example would be to open schools to non-academic activities on the weekend. Places such as athletic tracks and school cafeterias could be used to hold birthday parties, for example. "We need more safe places," he says.
For many parents, shopping malls have become a perfect haven for children. Marina doesn't have a problem with this. "They're designed so the whole family can spend the afternoon there, each member doing his or her own thing. This can work because it solves the problem that parents don't know what to do with their kids when they get to a certain age, because they can't be watching them all the time," he says.
Eva Marín Llimerá, director of the La Vaguada Shopping Center, in Madrid, explains what she sees as the keys to this phenomenon: "Malls have replaced the street because they're a safe place with many more options concentrated in a single space. Kids and adolescents can go everywhere from video arcades to hamburger joints, or just hang out in the garden. And in the children's area, parents can leave their kids there and not have to worry."
Going to the mall used to be the favorite activity of Lidia, the daughter of Carlos Moreno, a divorced father whose daughter is becoming a teenager. With her 13th birthday around the corner, she has spent very little time on the street, partly because her friends didn't live in her neighborhood. This is also more and more common. The schools many kids attend are far away and their parents have to take them over to a friend's house to play, whereas kids used to play in their own area with the other neighborhood kids. But Lidia is getting sick of shopping malls; she sees them as too childish. A few weeks ago, she asked her father if she could go for a walk around the center of her city, Madrid. Carlos said no. "If she had wanted to go to a specific space, I would have had no problem taking her there, but she's too young to be wandering around on her own," he says.
In this case, the leap from being under the roof of a shopping center or a friend's house to the street was going to take place abruptly, without any transitional phases. According to Tonucci: "Autonomy should be an ongoing process that starts when the umbilical cord is cut and can never stop. Every day, starting from the first few months of life, a child should grow up a little."
Nuria Thomas, a high school teacher in Barcelona, has watched hundreds of students go from childhood to adolescence over the last three decades. During this period, she's observed a series of phenomena: "Kids are not familiar with their own city. Their families take them less and less to see the interesting places in their hometown and they discover the monuments with us, on field trips." As far as overprotection goes, she points out a few paradoxes: "They need permission for everything, even to have a physical education class near the school. Now absences and tardies are also much more closely controlled. But that's because it's more and more common for students to arrive late because they've overslept, for example. And that's the parents' fault," she says. In some families, there's a kind of schizophrenia between overregulation and neglect.
The onset of adolescence is always difficult. It lays down new rules that, in the opinion of the educational psychologist Pedro Santamaría, parents and kids must agree on together. "The goal should be for the minor to feel legitimate in his or her new autonomy, but there must be limits," he says. "The ideal thing would be to agree on appropriate curfews. A 13-year-old, for example, should always be home before 10pm. This is something that should be carefully thought over and discussed." In his expert opinion, you can't go from total control to total freedom in adolescence. He cites the example of the virtual life of video games and the internet. "The very artificial type of relationship that adolescents have with machines must be supervised by an adult." Once again, he proposes combining the minor's freedom to choose with a set of proper guidelines. "There must be mechanisms to adapt to the change. We have to think about generating an awareness that fosters the development of conduct that helps these adolescents find their place in a life that requires more and more autonomy. That's the new approach of the University of Bologna, that young people should be able to take responsibility for their own education. But there's got to be someone who teaches them," he says.
There is no perfect recipe; no parent is better than another for giving their child more or less autonomy. What the experts do recommend, however, is to try and strike a balance between freedom and protection.