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Free-range kids: An international debate

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Lori Pierce didn't intend to spark an international debate.

When her 10-year-old son William asked if he could walk alone to soccer practice in March, the Columbus, Miss., mother gave it some thought. The field, at a nearby elementary school, was just half a mile away in a safe, low-crime area of town.

"I figured, why not?" Pierce told the Columbus Dispatch. "It would be a good way for him to learn some independence. He had been out walking with his father the night before and knows how to walk down sidewalks. I had to be at the soccer field in a few minutes anyway, so I gave him my cell phone and sent him on his way."

William made it less than half the way there before a police officer picked him up. They were responding to several 911 calls made by concerned people who had seen William walking alone, the Dispatch reported.

The officer caught up to Pierce at her son's soccer practice and "proceeded to read her the riot act" about endangering her child and the criminal charges she could have faced if something happened to her son.

"He told me I could have been charged with child endangerment," she told the paper. "I was so shocked."

After the story hit the wires, it was reported as far away as Canada and Holland. The merits of what she had done were debated on parenting blogs around the world and on talk radio.

New York Sun columnist Lenore Skenazy, dubbed the "world's worst mom" by the Huffington Post, caused a minor sensation last year by allowing her nine-year-old son to take the Manhattan subway home alone and then writing a column about it.

It caused such a stir that within two days she was defending herself as a guest on the Today show, MSNBC and Fox News, trying to convince the anchors that she was, in fact, a good mom. A generation ago, she pointed out, her parents and just about everyone else's let their kids ride the subway unattended. She's since launched a blog called Freerangekids.wordpress.com where parents can post stories similar to hers from around the world and debate children's' disappearing right to roam.

Two years ago, the London Daily Mail looked at three generations of a family and found that while great grandparents commonly traveled up to six miles from home unsupervised and children of the last two generations traveled up to a mile from home unsupervised, many of them playing until dark before returning home in the summer, today's kids aren't allowed past the driveway, or out of a parent's direct line of sight.

A recent study by the British non-profit Living Streets found that 50 percent of all five to 10-year-olds have never played in the streets of their neighborhoods while 90 percent of their grandparents had. As in America, children are now kept inside, thanks to their parents' fears of pedophiles and traffic accidents. Another study by the Children's Society showed that 43 percent of parents thought children under 14 shouldn't be allowed out of the house unsupervised.

In the United Kingdom, as here, parents say that things are far-less safe today than when they were growing up, a statistic that is patently false.

Harvard psychology professor Richard J. McNally, who follows this issue, reports that since the early 1990s, crimes against children and teens have actually plummeted in this country.

Ironically, it was actually the kids who roamed a generation ago who were the least safe. From the mid-1970s until 1990, crimes against children here and in other Westernized countries climbed steadily.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, McNally points to a Journal of Social Issues study that found that the overall rates of crime against children have dropped by as much as 70 percent since 1990. According to the Justice Department, juvenile homicide has dropped by 50 percent, substantiated cases of child sex abuse dropped by 49 percent and physical abuse by 43 percent.

Of course, the current decline is probably due to parents keeping their kids indoors. But is the price -- which includes boredom, lack of independence and an epidemic of child obesity -- worth it? You can make a good case either way.

But parents should keep a few things in perspective. The same moms and dads who won't let their kid past the edge of the driveway in a nation where the odds of stranger abduction are about 1.5 in a million, according to the Kansas City Star, think nothing of buckling them in the car, where the odds of fatality are about three in 100,000 for kids under 14.

So what hurts or seriously injures kids? Many of these dangers, ironically, are found inside. The No. 1 cause of emergency room visits for people under 24 is a fall down the stairs, the Star reports. Falls from beds and couches and run-ins with glass doors rank in the top 10, along with sports injuries, particularly from football and basketball.

Sure, it's a dangerous world out there. But it can be a dangerous world inside, and in your sports league, too.

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