Here is a surefire way to earn the opprobrium of your fellow parents: Send your six-year-old to the park down the street by himself. And then wait for the fan to get muddy.
In the United States this past year, at least three parents were arrested for letting their children play unsupervised in a park. In Canada, a mother was tried and eventually acquitted on charges of child abandonment for leaving her six-year-old daughter alone at home for 90 minutes while she ran errands.
Ideally, allowing kids to explore their neighbourhood unescorted and leaving them alone at home for brief periods wouldn't reach the level of social crisis, but here we are.
So, as families across the country steel themselves for the end of the summer holidays, an exhortation is in order: This fall, commit a subversive act and let your child walk to school on his or her own. Encourage your neighbours to do likewise.
It will feel strange, maybe even unsettling. But it's worth it. Even in a big city, the odds of anything bad happening – other than the authorities' impulse to punish behaviour that was the norm a generation ago – are virtually nil.
Virtually. It's not a zero-risk proposition, which is the point. Risk aversion has become such a hallmark of modernity that it's time to organize a rebellion against our collective safety obsession.
As a society, we've largely lost our bearings on what it is we should be actually worrying about. We fear kidnapping or fatal playground accidents when childhood obesity is a far more pernicious and common danger. Our metal-detector society frets over terrorism and gun crime, when driving a car or suffering from heart disease are exponentially greater threats.
This is not a new phenomenon. The greatest minds in psychology and other disciplines have studied our misplaced fears at length. Their conclusion: Sure, it's possible to be snatched off the street or get run over by a bus while walking to school. People are also occasionally killed by metal plates falling from the sky. But the only foolproof way to comprehensively eliminate risks is not to live in the first place.
In his 2008 book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, Canadian writer Dan Gardner concluded that, beyond our established cognitive biases and quirks – essentially, we are caught between what protectiveness and reason tell us – we are further clouded by "merchants of fear," chiefly in government, business and the media.
Another tome published around that time by U.S.-based author and journalist Lenore Skenazy brought the idea home in a parenting context.
"Our moms sent us outside and said, 'Come home when the streetlights turn on' . . . yet here in the nice, safe, scurvy-free 21st century we worry about letting our kids ride their bikes to the library or walk to school," she wrote in Free-Range Kids.
She highlighted the fact only one in 1.5 million children is abducted by a complete stranger each year in the U.S. (the number is even lower in Canada), and noted that instances of sexual assault, murder and other violent crimes against children – and everyone else – are at their lowest ebb in North America since the 1960s.
"Times have not changed," she wrote. "The problem is that we parents feel childhood is more dangerous for our kids than it was for us."
Ms. Skenazy caused a furor in 2008 when she wrote a newspaper piece about encouraging her nine-year-old son to ride the New York City subway alone. The story launched a movement.
It's not about enabling reckless parenting – Ms. Skenazy was quickly dubbed "America's worst mom" on the talk-show circuit. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The idea is to consider risks sensibly and thoughtfully, and prepare children to face them.
A cottage industry has grown up around the idea of free-range parenting, with advice gurus insisting people should encourage their children to do dangerous things. Because it turns out playing with matches and tasting mild electrical currents can be good for child development.
The concept of modern playgrounds – linear, lawsuit-proof, boring – is also being revisited by various scholars and forward-thinking local governments (so-called adventure playgrounds have existed in England since the 1940s; other places are waking up to their benefits).
Research indicates exposing children to dangers – at non-fatal levels, where peers and help are within reach – teaches them how to cope with life and how to recognize their limits.
One prominent expert, Susan Solomon, recently wrote, "Children inhabit a world that has shrunk to home, school and planned activities."
This is not a good thing. The insurgency against it begins by educating our children, pushing them out the door and encouraging them to wander.