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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.


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.

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