Libertarian social media have been all atwitter this afternoon with a Lenore Skenazy post at Reason that reports the results of a Reason-Rupe poll showing that:
A whopping 83 percent of Americans think there should be a law that prohibits kids 9 and under from playing at the park unsupervised, despite the fact that most of them no doubt grew up doing just that.
What’s more: 62 percent feel the same way about 12-year-olds. They would like to criminalize all pre-teenagers playing outside on their own (and, I guess, arrest their no-good parents).
Having contributed to Lenore’s “Free Range Kids” blog and written critically about what I call “corner solution parenting,” I’m as depressed by those numbers as everyone else is. I’m less surprised, having followed the moral panic over child safety for at least a decade. As Lenore points out in the Reason post linked above, childhood has never been safer than today, yet the advocates of Helen Lovejoyism continue to let their misplaced fears, often the result of availability bias, drive them to both bad parenting and bad public policy. I also agree with those who think that this sort of helicopter parenting can easily produce adults who struggle with independence, freedom, and responsibility.
But there’s another more subtle problem that can arise from the belief that children should never be unsupervised. Later in that post, Lenore writes describes the work of the psychologist Peter Gray on children in the South Pacific:
In his book, Gray writes about a group of 13 kids who played several hours a day for four months without supervision, though they were observed by an anthropologist. “They organized activities, settled disputes, avoided danger, dealt with injuries, distributed goods... without adult intervention,” he writes.
The kids ranged in age from 3 to 5.
Though these were not contemporary American children, many of us over the age of about 30 or 35 can look back to our own childhoods and remember how our own unsupervised play required us to develop these sort of skills.
The ability to engage in group problem solving and settle disputes without the intervention of outsiders is a key part of the liberal order. Think about all of the social interactions we have during the day that involve some minor disagreement or dispute: Whose turn is it at the copier? Who should clean up the coffee area? Who gets that parking space? Think about how often these disputes get settled without violence or acrimony. Or think about how we design rules and procedures in small informal groups, again mostly without violence or acrimony. Think of the ways we put up with annoying or obnoxious behavior of others. When you seriously consider all the moments in a typical day that have potential for conflict that get resolved through conversation and negotiation, or just plain tolerance, it’s actually somewhat astounding.
It’s possible that these little “Ostrom moments” get resolved peacefully because so many of us have had experience from childhood at having to engage in this sort of rule-making and rule-enforcing that is so critical to a liberal society. We have learned how to problem solve in these ways without the need to invoke violence or some sort of external threat. Developing these skills is a central, if largely invisible, foundation of peaceful human interaction and cooperation that keeps liberal societies as liberal and free as they are.
Imagine if we didn’t have these skills. Imagine a world where many more social conflicts, or interpersonal slights, led to anger or violence. Imagine a world where rather than trying to settle conflict through conversation and negotiation among the parties, we immediately went to the police or lawyers and invoked the heavy hand of the state and the law.
Maybe this exercise doesn’t require much imagination. Maybe we’re seeing more and more of this in modern America. And maybe it’s the result of an increasing number of young people who have not sufficiently developed the skills to resolve conflict peacefully on their own because they simply did not have the opportunities as a child to engage in the unsupervised play that allows them to learn those skills. The problems I see college students have in negotiating roommate conflicts are strong evidence for this claim. And this phenomenon might not be that new: think about how many Seinfeld episodes, if not the whole series, revolve around the inability to smooth social interactions using these skills.
If I’m right about this, parenting strategies and laws that make it harder for kids to play on their own pose a serious threat to liberal societies by flipping our default setting from “figure out how to solve this conflict on your own” to “invoke force and/or third parties whenever conflict arises.” A society that weakens children’s ability to learn these skills, denies them what they need to smooth social interaction. The inevitable coarsening of social interaction creates a world of more conflict and violence, and one in which people’s first instinct will be increasingly to invoke the state and enlarge its powers. One shudders to think what such children would be like if they were the ones with power.
Unorganized play is a key way that children learn the skills necessary to engage in social cooperation in all kinds of social spaces both within the market and especially outside of it. If we parent or legislate in ways that make it harder for kids to develop those skills, we are taking away a key piece of what makes it possible for free people to be peaceful, cooperative people. That’s a danger that should concern us all.