Bad Science and Pervasive Myths Have Taken These Freedoms Away From Today's Kids

September 3rd 2016

Mike Rothschild

The pull of nostalgia is powerful. In their sentimental wishing for the return of “the good old days,” people often remember what they were allowed to do as kids that modern kids can’t. Some of these things are consigned to history for a good reason, such as the pervasive casual racism of older pop culture or babies riding in cars without seats.

But there’s a much longer list of things that young people today aren’t allowed to do that their parents could – and for no real reason. These prohibitions are usually based on misinformation, bad science, or old-fashioned fear-mongering. And they often do more harm than good, removing agency and decision-making from kids, and replacing it with arbitrary rules and restriction.

1. Leave the House Alone

A perfect example of this is that kids, by and large, are not allowed to go anywhere by themselves anymore. This can be traced to the panic over “stranger danger” – the fear that creepers and sex maniacs were waiting to grab and murder children walking or playing by themselves. Thanks to a few high-profile child murders in the early 80s, pop culture has spent decades awash in lurid tales of kids nabbed by sex traffickers, killers, or by rock and roll Satanist rings.

Fortunately, the actual number of proven “stranger danger” kidnappings is remarkably low. According to a DOJ study cited by the Washington Post, there are about 115 strange kidnappings of children by strangers per year, representing about "only one-hundredth of 1 percent of all missing children." And thanks to cell phones, Amber Alerts, and efficient police work, their recovery rate has reached 98-99 percent. An unsupervised child today is far more likely to invite a panicked and potentially family-destroying 911 call or email than the clutches of a murderous pervert.

2. Wait for Their Parents In a Car

One of the consequence of the pervasive fear of leaving children alone is that it’s now unacceptable to leave kids in a car even for a few minutes. Obviously, young children should never be alone in hot cars – a mistake that kills dozens of children every year due to either negligence or parents being overwhelmed. These stories are tragic, cautionary tales that cut across socioeconomic lines.

But what about consciously leaving kids alone in a locked car for a few minutes on a moderate day in a safe neighborhood? What was once common now leads to social ostracizing and devastating legal consequences – despite parents likely breaking no law nor putting their child in any danger.

There’s little research as to how long a child can safely be left in a car in temperate weather, and while carjackings of vehicles with children in them do happen, even the car safety organization Kids and Cars concedes they’re extremely rare. Additionally, the few surveys done on whether parents actually do leave their child unattended in a car have produced inconclusive results. Parents won’t even find clarity in the law, because they are totally different from state to state. Some states allow it completely, with about 20 others banning it altogether. Other states allow kids to be unsupervised for five, ten, or fifteen minutes – and most don’t clearly define what a “kid” is or what “unsupervised” means.

Despite the confusion over what is safe and legally allowed, innumerable parents have been threatened with jail or losing their kids thanks to a stranger who saw an unsupervised child in a car but in no obvious danger. According to Reason.com, a Chicago Public Defender faced a months-long child abuse investigation after leaving her three kids for a five minute Starbucks run, while a family law expert in England was arrested when he came back to his car after leaving his daughter for ten minutes to pick up cough medicine.

3. Trick or Treat by Themselves

Food hysteria is also quite common among parents, particularly on Halloween. What kid doesn’t remember their mom or dad frantically going through each piece of loot looking for holes in the wrapper, poison, needles, or razor blades? The 80s were shot through with fear of anonymous poisonings, driven by hysterical advice columns from Dear Abby and Ann Landers that spoke of people with “twisted minds” putting “razor blades or poison” in candy handed out to neighborhood kids.

Subsequent research has shown that not a single death has taken place in the last 30 years due to a stranger dosing Halloween candy with poison, needles or razors. The only case where poisoned Halloween candy was even suspected in a death was in the 1974 murder of eight-year-old Timothy O’Bryan, who ate Pixy Stix spiked with with cyanide. Police became suspicious about an insurance policy taken out on Timothy, and his father Ronald was quickly revealed as the culprit. It turned out that Ronald gave a number of children tainted candy to cover his attempt to kill his own kids and cash in on their life insurance.

4. Eat Peanuts

Some kids don’t even get to have any candy at all, due to another hysteria – peanut allergies. While this is certainly a serious condition to those who have it, it’s also controllable. But the 90s rush to ban nut products in schools led to a hysterical fear of nut dust or oil. Kids were lined up to scrub their hands, submitted their lunches for inspection, and whole buses were evacuated because a stray Planters was found on the ground. All because of over-protective parenting and misguided internet sleuthing.

CDC research has shown that food allergies increased by 17% from 1997 to 2007, but nut allergies are just one component of that, along with shellfish, wheat, and dairy. A very small amount of these allergies, about 150 per year, lead to death. Since shellfish is rarely served to kids, and wheat and milk are impossible to ban, nuts became the easy target for the food police. But that only made the problem worse, as kids who were never exposed to nuts became more likely to become allergic to them. Current research shows that kids who eat more nuts early in life are less likely to develop nut allergies – turning the entire panic on its head.

5. Go Sledding in the Park

Even if you’re allowed to have candy, there’s probably something your parents could do that you can’t, for a reason that’s not very good. A perfect example of this is the numerous cities that have banned sledding in public parks. The cause of the bans is lawsuits, including multi-million dollar payouts to families in Nebraska and Iowa where children suffered devastating injuries in sledding accidents.

Unfortunately, this just sends winter-happy kids without yards out to the streets to sled, where they’re five times more likely to need a trip to the ER. A few cities have rolled these bans back because they’re unenforceable, opting instead to mandate sledders wear safety gear.

Certainly, we’re all invested in making things safer for our kids than they were for us. But we should always be using good science and sound judgment to do so, not succumbing to panics driven by the media or neighborhood busybodies. We can leave that to decades past.