Risk Management : Remember the adventures you had as a kid? Most parents say that's too much freedom to give children these days, but they do need a little bit of rope to develop properly.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I was little, my sibs and I had hide-outs where we often spent whole days without glimpsing an adult, which was, come to think of it, the point.

Our favorite place was a pond near an abandoned house in the big apricot orchard at the end of our street. It was private, mysterious--and slightly dangerous. Perfect. Would I let my kids play in there? No way.

When my husband was 10, he used to ride the bus through East St. Louis with another boy so they could go to Cardinals games. Alone! Before that, he lived in Georgia and got to his best pal's house every day by tightrope-walking across a sewer pipe--over a 20-foot drop to a snake-filled creek.

"It was great," he says in one breath. "I can't believe my parents let me do that stuff!" he says in the next.

Doesn't just about everyone in this generation of parents have similar stories--and a similar sense of shock at what freedom we were allowed?

I call the editor for this article to talk about writing it, and she says: "I used to take walks in Central Park with my sister when I was 4 years old. She was only 13!"

Well, Central Park has changed. The country has changed. Crime and violence are much different, much viler threats than they were in the '50s, '60s, even the '70s when current parents were growing up. And we have changed. We, the last generation of free-range kids, are determined to be micro-manager parents.

We're so afraid of so many things nowadays when it comes to our kids--traffic, abduction, molesters, drugs, guns, gangs, sex--that we make it our mission to protect them at all times. We structure their lives as never before. We chauffeur them as never before. We keep them safer than ever before? Maybe. We also give them less freedom.

And what are the implications of that, I sometimes wonder as I ferry my 5-year-old from his play date to his museum tour to his ice-skating lessons. What does it mean that my boy and his little sister won't ever go down to their own orchard or alley or creek bed without me or their dad around?

Peter Spevak, a Rockville, Md., expert on parental concerns and fears, says we may be depriving kids of developing the ability to deal confidently with the world.

"I believe what it does, if we have too much organized, structured play, is lead to a killing of spontaneity--the type of thing that made America wonderful, meaning the ability to have fun and take reasonable risks and be inventive," says Spevak, director of the Center for Applied Motivation.

Bev Bos, who runs a well-known, innovative preschool in Roseville, Calif., and lectures around the country, says she sees today's kids being so programmed and protected that they don't learn how to think on their feet.

"I insist that parents try not to hover," Bos says. "That's because it's crucial that children take risks and act on their own. It's crucial to developing a sense of self."

Even Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who deals with incidents of grievous harm to youngsters every day, emphasizes that parents need to get some perspective and give kids some rope.

"What every kid really needs is some savvy and street smarts," Allen says. "They won't ever get that if there is always, always an adult standing right beside. They'll never get that if they live in protected little hothouses, where their whole lives are dance lessons, and soccer and concerts and supervised events."

Of course, some greater level of parental fear is justified nowadays, experts and parents would agree. But it's true as well that parental fears are often at odds with reality.

Driving the kids everywhere so they won't get hit by a car?

* Last year, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers, more kids under age 5 died while sitting in a car wearing safety restraints than died as pedestrians hit by cars.

* In the prime bike-riding age group of 5 to 15, more children died wearing their seat belts than died from cars hitting them as they pedaled their two-wheelers.

As for abductions, slayings and mass-molestation of small kids, after a period of national concern bordering on hysteria, the truth is emerging that these cases are still relatively rare.

Several hundred thousand minors a year are snatched--but by family members during custody disputes. Abductions by strangers are far less common. Somewhere between 3,000 and 4,500 children under 18 are seized, most of them teen-agers, according to the benchmark report done in 1990 by the U.S. Justice Department.

What about the ultimate fear, that a child might be abducted and murdered? About 2,000 children are murdered annually in this country, Allen says. But only about 100 kids are snatched by strangers and killed.

"Younger children," he adds, "tend to be murdered by their parents. Statistically speaking, the most dangerous place for small children is at home."

Of course, fear doesn't go by the numbers. And we parents are left with our dilemma.

"I worry all the time about someone abducting my daughter," says Karineh Youssefian, a 35-year-old mother of two in Salt Lake City. "I don't know anyone it ever happened to. I do know the chances of it happening are extremely slim. Our neighborhood is very nice, and I want my daughter to feel comfortable in it. But in your mind you think: What a horrible thing if it did happen!"

Prodded by other parents and neighbors, Youssefian permitted her daughter to walk four short blocks to school when she turned 8. "But I worried sick for two years," Youssefian says. "It seems like we're faced with a tremendous trade-off: our children's freedom and developing independence for their safety and security."

In Los Altos, Calif., Frank and Shari Elmer feel the same internal tug of war.

"I know it's safe here," Shari Elmer says--and in fact, not a single case of child-snatching has been recorded in her snug Bay Area town since the police department was established in 1959. "But I still take the kids to be finger-printed and videotaped every year when they offer it for free during the town pet parade."

Shari lets daughters Sheridan, 5, and Mackenzie, 6, sell eggs from their three chickens at a little stand in the driveway. But she stands sentry behind the living-room window.

"Strangers stop and buy their eggs," she says. "I tell them not to speak to strangers. I let them go out there, and I wonder: Should I be doing this?"

The Elmers fret that they are too protective. Shari, a kindergarten teacher, scoffs at herself as a "helicopter parent" because of all the hovering. She herself grew up roaming around the grassy hills of Prescott, Ariz., and swinging on the neighborhood Tarzan rope whether any adults were watching or not.

Yet, if they are erring, the Elmers feel compelled to err on the side of safety.

Other parents tell similar tales of nostalgia and protection:

* Julie Solomon, a writer about to come out with her second book, grew up in the northernmost corner of Appalachia, a town called Seaman, Ohio--population 800.

She and her husband, Bill Abrams, an ABC news network executive, now raise their two small children in Manhattan. From the time she was 4 or 5, Solomon says, she was free to walk the half-mile along the town's main drag to Seaman's downtown.

It was a minuscule downtown, with only one stoplight. Still, she recalls, there was considerable traffic. "My mother was pretty laissez faire," she says.

Solomon's 5-year-old daughter, Roxie, attends a public school in Greenwich Village only blocks from home. "When will I let her walk to school?" Solomon muses. "Oh, when she's 30."

* Rhonda Kidd-Love, a Detroit mother whose son died when someone fired into a crowd, now sends her second son, 15, to an Indiana military school to keep him safe. Kidd-Love grew up in Detroit, too, and she did all the things she won't let son Christopher do now: "Cruise around the neighborhood with friends, stay out late and act silly."

Times have seriously changed, Kidd-Love says. Guns and gangs are much too potent threats to permit Christopher the freedom she had.

For Christopher, his mother believes in science camp, youth groups, church activities and any organized activity to occupy his time.

"I push push push to give his life structure," she says. "I know I should back off a little, but then I'm afraid the world will eat him up."

* Viktor Budnik and his wife, Janie Hewson, of Venice Beach, also give their 5-year-old daughter safe, secure days with supervised events and lessons. They say it's not a matter of parental control, but rather of following the child.

"She is very social, she has the ability of gathering people around her. She's very outspoken and she's interested in a lot of things--learning Spanish, art projects, science projects, you name it."

When Budnik was in high school, he desperately wanted to go to art school. His parents wanted him to remain in Catholic school. He had to deliberately flunk out to persuade them to change their minds.

Now a producer of television commercials, Budnik is trying to nourish his daughter's interests. Kimberly has had dance lessons, computer classes, and is now enrolled in a special bilingual Spanish-English school program in Santa Monica.

"We're trying to let Kimberly express herself," says her dad.

*

In the schoolyard of Roseville Community Preschool, there is a three-story fort-cum- treehouse with two lofts connected only by rope nets. You have to make some terrifying leaps, director Bos says, to get around in there. The fort is sort of a 3-D diagram of Bos' philosophy of parenting.

"No child has been hurt in 32 years," Bos hastens to point out, and she adds that the schoolyard is fenced. Still, Bos doesn't try to keep kids safe by controlling their situation.

"Within the structure we present to the child--which is as stimulating as we can make it, I give up control," she says. And she encourages the preschoolers to give it up as well.

"I want to put up a big sign that says: 'Screw Up!' I want them to laugh, giggle, lose control, make mistakes, live on the edge, where we become who we need to be."

Bos says she sees a new set of students coming up today who don't have social analytical skills. "They may be very bright and well-informed," she says, "but they aren't full human beings. They're not socially competent."

Bos, who is in her 50s, says you could leave her in a big city she's never seen before, in the diciest neighborhood you could find, and she would have a sense of who could help her or, conversely, who needed her help. She would know who to trust and how to win another's trust.

"You don't learn such things with parents hovering and directing," she says. "You don't learn it through soccer or Little League or watching TV. It's developed when kids are with one another, forging friendships, having fights, going home and slamming the door, and then resolving the conflict."

*

This resonates with me. We had such a children's society in our orchard. I learned a great deal there that never appeared on my report card--and I can take care of myself in a strange city too.

Experts say such street smarts are critical for kids, especially when confronting would-be abductors and molesters. "I've listened to sexual offenders interviewed in prison," says Billie Corder, a psychologist who treats abused youngsters in Raleigh, N.C. "And so many say that if a child had made a strong protest, or screamed, or said he or she would call the police, then they would have gone on to another victim.

"A small child can't physically fend off a 275-pound man, obviously," Corder says, "but these coping mechanisms some kids manage to learn can make the crucial difference."

Children need strong communications skills, Corder says, and they need to feel empowered to speak up. Does that mean they need to spend all day playing alone in an orchard?

"No," she says "you'd be a nervous wreck. When they get old enough to handle some freedom, give them a beeper--and a short leash."

At which point the question becomes, of course, how short? To which the answer is, as usual: It depends. It depends partly on your parental nerve, partly on your child's personality, and partly on where you live, the experts say.

Architecture critic Philip Langdon, an expert in the quality of suburban development, points out that even the basic layout of our cities and towns figures in to how independent children can be allowed to be.

In older, traditional-model suburbs--where there is a network of low-traffic streets leading to a shopping area--parents can reasonably let children do errands so that they feel "useful."

In more modern-design suburbs--where garage doors predominate and homes are walled in, preventing watchful eyes from peering out the kitchen window as in days of yore--it's probably best to drive kids places.

Wherever you live, the questions remain. How do you know when children are ready? How much freedom do you give them?

"You have to sort of dole it out," says Spevak, of the Center for Applied Motivation. "It's like a training program in how to use freedom responsibly. Give kids a chance, and if they overdo the boundaries, rein them back in."

How to begin? Bos suggests something very simple. When you're walking with a child, you can start by letting go your hand. "Walk behind," she says. "Follow their lead. Let them show you the rocks and the spider webs and the leaves."

It hits me that this is still hovering, albeit at a small remove. But I'm glad Bos considers it a start. If we modern parents are going to send children down the freedom trail, we'll have to begin with baby steps.

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