Discovering A World Beyond The Front Yard

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

One day a few years ago, Khady Lusby's twins were 5 and playing by themselves in the park that abuts their Arlington house when another mother called her at home.

"She said, 'Do you know your boys are at the playground playing?' And I said, 'Yes, I know,' " recalled Lusby, who is from Senegal.

"She said, 'Oh, you know this is not the way we do things here,' meaning in America. I just made a joke: 'Well, I'm African -- wherever I go I take my African way,' and she said, 'Well you can be reported.' "

Undaunted, Lusby and her husband, who grew up in Hagerstown, continued to let their three boys, now 11 and 6, go to the park alone (though at the creek they are to take along a sibling and walkie-talkies.)

Their neighbors, Mark Katzenberger and Mona Leigh, have a similar philosophy, allowing their two children to venture to the park on their own and walk to school unaccompanied by adults.

But the couples make up a small minority: parents who, despite prevailing trends, believe letting children play outside is ultimately less dangerous than what will happen if they never get to explore.

In some urban neighborhoods across America, children still pour into the streets to play, the older ones keeping an eye on the younger ones as they have for generations. But for a while now, to drive around America's suburbs is to see tidy but empty blocks, devoid of the kickball, hide-and-seek and aimless wanderings of earlier generations. For many parents, the thought of allowing their children out unaccompanied invokes spasms of horror and even accusations of child neglect.

It can be difficult for individual families to buck the trend without facing criticism. "When parents start to tell me about how their kids' lives are programmed compared to theirs [when they were young], they're very apologetic," said Roger Hart, director of the Children's Environments Research Group at the City University of New York. "But they say, 'You know, if I let my kids go out by themselves to the center of town, my neighbors just wouldn't accept me as a good parent.' "

Many parents speak wistfully of their own childhoods, before play dates and soccer practices, when they left home in the morning and roamed freely. But those same parents say that was a more innocent time, with fewer kidnappers.

"Can't do like you used to anymore," said Patricia Shackleford, who grew up in Arlington playing on a block with 50 other kids until nightfall. Now she drives her children, 12 and 9, to the playground and waits while they play. "Got to supervise them."

Cesar Llerena, watching from a bench as his children played at Alcova Heights Park, said he does not think it is responsible to let children walk to school, even if it is only three blocks away. "Someone might drive up" and kidnap them, he said. "It hasn't happened here, but it has happened."

Has the world really become more dangerous?

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