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Kids' Disappearing Right to Roam 

Four generations later, it's gone

My nephew Landon, who is 5, is learning to ride his bike. He calls me at work several times a day to tell me how it's going.

Considerably better, he believes, than his recent jump off the diving board.

"That almost killed me," he says. He doesn't like to talk about the shock of the water closing over his head. After a winter of not swimming, he wasn't so good at holding his breath, and it scared him.

It scared my mother, too. She was just feet away with the life guard when he went off the board for the first time this summer. And she was just feet away as he learned to ride his scooter, then his bike. Like the other moms and grandmothers in the neighborhood where I grew up, she never lets him out of her sight.

It's not like when I was a kid, when we still had the roam of the neighborhood. It's just as safe now as it was then. No child that I know of has ever disappeared or been kidnapped or -- God forbid -- killed in that subdivision by human, car or machine since it was built more than 25 years ago.

Yet Landon doesn't ever wander farther than 300 yards from the house or, really, out of my mother's sight. Ditto for the other kids.

The parallels between the generations of my family and the family profiled in a London Daily Mail article two weeks ago called "How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Four Generations" are striking.

Like Landon, Ed, 8, isn't allowed to go past the edge of his driveway unsupervised. The Daily Mail reports that when Ed's great-grandfather George Thomas was his age, Thomas roamed as far as six miles away daily in the summer to fish at his favorite fishing hole. The Daily Mail mapped the travels of Ed's relatives over the next three generations. Ed's father, who is 63, spent his days playing in the woods with friends, and traveled an average of a one-mile radius from home unsupervised.

Like me, Ed's mother Vicky traveled about half a mile away from home to the swimming pool by herself. Things have changed a lot in 20 years. I can remember my brother and his friend Matt tearing around the neighborhood on their Green Machines unsupervised at Landon's age, racing them in the street as my mother occasionally peeked out the window while drying the dishes. My husband, who grew up in Gastonia, would take off in the morning during the summer with his friends and come back at night.

Today, that's virtually unthinkable. Two 5-year-olds racing Green Machines down a subdivision street blocks away from home stand a decent chance of making the 6 o'clock news -- with a social services investigation soon to follow.

It's easy to forget how much today's kids are missing. With child murders and molestations featured nightly on the news, letting kids wander off to build forts deep in the woods and camp out along streams is becoming unthinkable. The irony of this, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Harvard psychology professor Richard J. McNally, is that since the early 1990s, crimes against children and teens have actually plummeted in this country.

McNally quotes a Journal of Social Issues study last year 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.

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.

Among the factors McNally credits: more criminals in jail, more cops on the street, more social workers, more awareness of sexual predators and better treatment of mental illness, addiction and domestic violence.

Even more ironic is that only three percent of child murder victims in America are killed by strangers. Another 23 percent are killed by "male acquaintances" and the rest by parents or family members.

And it's not just violent crime against children that is falling. Child pedestrian death rates have also fallen dramatically both here and in other Westernized nations.

In light of all of this, it's an interesting trade that many parents are making. Perhaps the new boundaries kids have been given have increased their chances of making it to adulthood alive -- and lowered all kinds of tragic childhood death stats. But at what price?

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