One of my most vivid childhood memories is of a county park behind our house which was so vast to my eight-year-old mind that it might as well have been the Arctic tundra. We were constructing some kind of vine-swing over a creek, which I believe we planned to test on bikes. There were no parents anywhere.
In the 30 years since I roamed my Missouri neighborhood unsupervised, the world has changed in some invisible way and American parents are no longer allowed to let their children out of their yards by themselves. This notion is so ingrained that it has finally spawned a counter-movement around the radical idea that kids should be allowed to navigate their cities alone. It’s called “free-range kids” and it was launched by a woman named Lenore Skenazy who sparked a controversy when she wrote about letting her nine-year-old son take the New York City subway by himself.
Recently the term has been in the news as some free-range kids, 10 and 6, were picked up by Maryland police for walking from a park to their home less than a mile away (the parents had already been charged with neglect for allowing them to do it a few months before). Fellow free-range parents have responded to this incident by organizing a day this Saturday called Take Our Children to the Park and Let Them Walk Home By Themselves.
My kid can’t even walk yet, but I’m determined to let her learn self-sufficiency by exploring her city the same way I did. Yet I often find myself wondering how different that experience will be in today’s hyperconnected world.
I think the free-range kids movement has more nostalgic roots—a throwback to a time of more compact communities where everyone walked to school. But I’m curious about how emerging tech will influence my child’s experience. Could it actually help me raise a free-range kid?
I started asking these questions when I learned about a new app called Shuddle, which is basically an Uber for kids. (There are similar services in other cities, like HopSkipDrive in LA.) A tap on your smartphone will send a driver—a fully vetted “childcare professional”—to pick up your kids from school and deliver them to soccer practice. Shuddle was started by the founder of the ride-sharing app Sidecar after he noticed families using the app to get around (the service also offers rides for seniors). This has become kind of a thing: There was even a New York Times story in 2013 about how parents are using Uber to shuffle their kids to music classes and sleepovers, even though you’re supposed to be 18 to use it.
Even though plenty of people I know hire nannies to drive their children from preschool to park, the knee-jerk response to this app from many parents I know is one of pure outrage. Why would you use an app to drive your kid somewhere? How could you let your child get into the car with a perfect stranger?
But my first thought was actually from an urban transportation standpoint. After all, how is this any different from my plan to teach my kid to ride a public bus?
Since 2008, when Skenazy let her nine-year-old take his infamous subway ride across Manhattan, technology has changed quite a bit. For instance, she didn’t give him a phone to take along. Now we’re able to let our kids run free while actually being able to track our child’s every move. While they’re out there, we could let them feel untethered but simply turn on the phone GPS so we can monitor their location from time to time. (To parents of older kids, honest question: Is this something you do?)
But it goes deeper than that. I want my kids to have all the tools at their disposal to walk, bike, and ride transit safely—basically, all the options that I have myself. I’m all for holding out on the smartphone until it’s age-appropriate, but when I do hand it over, I’d want to load it up with Google Maps and Hopstop and Nextbus to teach my child how to better navigate the city. I can see practicing route planning with my kids, turning it into the same kind of game I like to play when exploring my city.
You might say that jumping in a kid-friendly rideshare isn’t the same thing as riding a bike to the park when it comes to fostering independence, but wouldn’t we want kids to feel comfortable summoning a cab or other kind of ride to get them safely home if something happens?
Before we all outfit our children with smart homing devices, though, some perspective: One fact that seems to get overlooked in these discussions is that, in our lifetimes, cities have never been safer for children. Abduction and traffic deaths have plummeted since the 1990s. Statistically, there is no reason why you shouldn’t let your kid walk to school or ride a city bus, and that’s mostly because of improvements to our infrastructure. Maybe better urban design will make us feel better about letting our kids roam free before any “kid tracker” app for the Apple Watch Jr.
My child still cannot sit up unassisted, so it will be a long time before I’m asking these questions for our family. By the time I have to decide how to ferry her from a playdate to a 3D printing class, the ride I’ll summon for her probably won’t even have a driver. On second thought, the bus probably won’t either.
Image from Bridge to Terabithia