By Petula Dvorak

The Washington Post

Of all the adventures my lucky children had this summer -- swimming in two oceans, hanging out on their bearded uncle's commercial salmon fishing boat, endless Popsicles -- the biggest one, they told me, was just 495 feet away in their own Washington, D.C., neighborhood.

They got to walk to the corner store on Capitol Hill by themselves. Clutch your pearls, America. The boys are 7 and 10. Apparently, I could be arrested for this.

In another disturbing national trend, we've sanctioned the criminalization of childhood independence. This summer we heard about a mom arrested for letting her 7-year-old walk to the local park in Florida and another mother locked up because her 9-year-old was playing at their neighborhood park in South Carolina.

A recent poll conducted by Reason/Rupe said that 68 percent of Americans think there should be a law prohibiting children age 9 and younger from ever playing in a park unsupervised, and 43 percent felt the same about allowing 12-year-olds that kind of freedom.

What has happened to us? My generation grew up, after all, with scratchy yarn and a house key around our necks. We walked home, let ourselves in and played until our parents got home from work.

I rode nearly a mile on my bike to get groceries for my mom when I was 8. I walked down one street and around the corner to the bus stop when I was in kindergarten.

My dad left me and another kid in the car when we were 4 while he visited my mom at the coffee shop where she was a waitress.


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We ate his cigarettes. But no one abducted us.

If the current judgment upon parents was in place, my folks would've spent my entire childhood in the lockup.

Yes. There are scary people out there. It is always a risk to let your children out of your sight. But truthfully, the most dangerous thing you do every day is drive anywhere with a child. About 300 kids are hurt in car accidents every day; an average of 3 are killed that way daily.

Yet I don't see police pulling parents over and locking them up whenever they see someone in a car seat. But playing on the monkey bars without mommy nearby? Book 'em!

"But it's a different world out there today. It's not like when I was growing up, and we'd all play in an apple orchard and we were safe. Today, you just don't know who's out there," said a lovely, well-meaning grandmother who was keeping an eagle-eye lookout on her grandchildren at a water park this summer while I let my kids do the water slides by themselves.

Yes, it is a different world. It's a safer world. It just doesn't feel like it because we know too much.

Back in the apple orchard and latchkey days, there were plenty of child molesters, killers and pervs lurking around. We simply didn't talk about them and didn't hear about what they did. News about a tragedy in Tallahassee didn't accompany your Wheaties in Portland seven days in a row.

It wouldn't sound like it listening to the news, but crimes against children committed by strangers are rare and declining.

Since 1993, the number of children age 14 and younger who were murdered is down by 36 percent. For children 14 to 17, it's down 60 percent. Only one-hundreth of one percent of missing children are abducted by strangers or even slight acquaintances, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

I'll never forget the days I spent with hundreds of files from the Boy Scouts of America documenting decades of molesters, pedophiles and predators using their uniform as a way to get access.

Back in those days when we thought everything was safe and shiny, not only did some of the men we trusted molest our kids, but our kids were afraid to tell anyone about it. And if they did tell, the adults in their world usually buried the incidents deep.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice analyzed by the organization Free Range Kids, between 1976 and 2005, only 3 percent of children murdered during those years were killed by strangers.

Lenore Skenazy started the Free Range Kids movement after she was called "America's Worst Mom" for allowing her 9-year-old to take the subway alone in Manhattan.

Statistically, our children's biggest enemies are the people we know, she says. But instead of focusing on ways to address child abuse, poverty and the mental illness that is at the root of most of the horrible things that happen to children, we've chosen to criminalize parents in a massive, cultural shift that damages the normal, natural development of our children.

The demands on parents -- moms in particular, if you notice the arrest stories -- are greater than ever to hover and supervise 24/7. That kind of parenting hurts everyone.

OK, I'll admit I wasn't as cool as Skenazy when I let my kids' leashes go this summer. The boys went to the corner store -- a trip they'd walked a thousand times with me -- with one of our cellphones and the dog. And I was a wreck the whole 20 minutes that I gave them on the phone stopwatch.

But it was a 20 minutes they talk about nearly every day. And those 495 feet were probably some of the most important steps they took in their short lives.