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The Etan Patz case and the end of 'free-range kids'

A boy rides in Central Park in Manhattan

A boy rides in Central Park in Manhattan (June 19, 2001) Credit: NEWSDAY/Mayita Mendez

Someone's been arrested at last in the heartbreaking case of Etan Patz, the 6-year-old who vanished on the streets of SoHo 33 years ago. It's unclear if the mystery has at last been solved. But what is clear is the unfortunate legacy of Patz's disappearance, which played a big role in ending what the writer Lenore Skenazy has called free-range kids.

Etan Patz vanished on the very first morning he was allowed to head for school on his own. Today few children so young are granted such freedom. But Americans of an older generation will remember not just going to school unaccompanied by adults, but roaming our neighborhoods with no parent, no cell phone, and no trouble -- or at least, no trouble we hadn't learned to handle. In fact, to this day the abduction of a child by a stranger is incredibly rare, which is one reason such cases draw so much media attention.

People say the world has changed, implying that it's more dangerous. But the reality is that back in the Sixties and Seventies, America was no safer -- indeed, quite the contrary. I wrote about this issue back in 2000 in the Wall Street Journal; here are a couple of key paragraphs (bear in mind that the numbers were gathered back then).

"What most middle-class parents don’t seem to realize is how physically safe their children are by historical standards. From 1960 to 1998, according to federal data, death rates from accidents among children ages one to four fell a remarkable 68%; for children five to 14, accidental deaths dropped 57%. Deaths from disease have also fallen sharply. While child homicide has increased, it remains rare -- and except among teenagers these killings typically occur at home at the hands of a parent or other 'caregiver.' Strangers are virtually no threat at all.

"School is extraordinarily safe; many more people are struck by lightning each year than die by violence in school. Your children are safe from abduction, too, unless it’s your spouse doing the kidnapping. A 1988 federal study (a new one is in the works) found that abduction by strangers befalls 200 to 300 children a year, an infinitesimal number in a nation of roughly 71 million children under the age of 18."

Despite these facts, people have become obsessed with protecting their kids from lethal predators. But in doing so, parents and children alike have paid a high price. Kids today are less physically active, and less skilled at finding their way in the world. They're fatter, too. Studies have found that they're far less likely to bicycle or walk to school than children of earlier generations, for example. My own family's experience is that self-organized outdoor free play among kids is virtually non-existent. And while it may feel safer to drive your kids somewhere, car trips are in fact a leading killer of children. Walking and riding transit are safer.

Meanwhile, childhood obesity has become a major problem. Diabetes among the young has soared in recent years, and children who are obese face the potential for a lifetime of serious ailments, not to mention early death.

I believe children would be better off with more freedom, and that we'd also be better off building denser communities more suitable to walking and biking. What a paradox: by trying to insulate kids from any possibility of abduction, we've probably exposed them to far greater risks.


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