by Pete Mazzaccaro

Much in the national conversation in the last month that did not concern Islamic militants or leaked celebrity photos turned to how protective we are in supervising our children.

One of the catalysts of this conversation was the story of South Carolina mother Debra Harrell who was arrested for having allowed her 9-year-old daughter to play in a nearby park while Harrell worked a shift at McDonald’s.

The arrest struck a nerve for many. Harrell’s daughter was less than 10 minutes from both her home and her mother’s work. She had a cell phone and a key for the house. Why couldn’t she play in a park on her own in the middle of the day?

Many of us probably remember being pretty independent at 9 and 10. And by us, I mean parents who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s. We enjoyed a degree of independence we’ve not granted our own children.

When I was in fourth grade, I not only rode my bike for miles to both playgrounds and pools, I also walked to a movie theater with a friend every month. When I wasn’t doing that, I was off, simply “in the woods” where I’d spend a day climbing large rocks, catching frogs – anything I wanted, really.

And this was well before a cell phone put me in easy reach of my parents if necessary. My parents had only the vaguest idea of where I was. And that never really mattered, as long as I was home for dinner.

Today, I have a hard time allowing my 9-year-old daughter to ride her bike around our block, a quiet suburban block with leafy one-way streets where she is completely safe. Would I let her walk to the movies or play in the woods for hours? I doubt it.

Why parents behave like this is hard to say. Evidence shows that our times are less dangerous than the ’80s or ’90s. They are definitely more safe than the ’70s. One could conceivably blame news reports, that deliver us daily tales of children who suffer terrible tragedies while unattended. The fact is, though, that our children are less likely to be harmed than ever before.

Social scientists are saying that our children are not only safer today, but that all of the supervision they’re getting is not particularly good for them.

In a recent Atlantic magazine story about children and supervised play, Hanna Rosin interviewed Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College in Trondheim, Norway. Sandaster wrote a dissertation on the importance of unsupervised and “risky” play in childhood development. Among the six things she identified as essential to well-rounded development, “exploring on one’s own” topped the list.

“When they are left alone and can take full responsibility for their actions, and the consequences of their decisions, it’s a thrilling experience,” Sandaster told Rosin.

“Our fear of children being harmed may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology,” Sandaster said, with psychopathology including increased levels of fear and anxiety that so-called risky play help avoid.

It’s hard to fault parents for wanting to keep tabs on their children. And, in reality, there’s probably a pretty comfortable middle ground between 24-7 supervision and daylong solo quests through the local woods. And a child can be supervised and still allowed to experiment by climbing that slide in a way he or she is not supposed to – or testing a high-speed, downhill run on a bike or skateboard. We as parents just have to hang back, grit our teeth and brace ourselves for the fall.

The best thing for kids, it seems, is to let them test their limits (and our anxieties) on their own.