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Children grow into healthier adults when they are allowed to be independent, learn to take risks, build social circles, and spend time playing with each other instead of being beholden to screens.

Find out who represents you on the City Council and reach out to let them know you want the city to work for walkable neighborhoods, better traffic control for safer walking and biking, spaces for teens to gather safely, spaces for children to play independently, and support community organizations that make us better neighbors. 

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The Quest to Raise Happier Kids

Why giving our city kids more freedom and independence is so vital … and how Philly, as a city, could help.

The Quest to Raise Happier Kids

Why giving our city kids more freedom and independence is so vital … and how Philly, as a city, could help.

I was a child of the 1980s, with most of the freedom that statement implies. By the time I was 8, for example, I could walk out the front door of my house to go play with neighborhood friends on weekend mornings or weekdays after school. We moved freely between neighboring houses; when I wanted to stay somewhere for dinner or go to the pool or be out later than planned, I’d call my mom. (I did this on a house phone, obviously: They were everywhere.) Then I’d go back to doing what I was doing, and mom could go back to doing what she was doing. And we were happy.

But just ask any parent in 2024: Attempting to recreate this set-up, which was both glorious and utterly unremarkable back then, really takes some doing, beginning with the obvious — there aren’t house phones anymore. In all my fretting over what laptops and YouTube and video games and the high-tech age generally was doing to my kids, this wasn’t something I’d much considered — nor how a kid’s (and my) free-wheeling lifestyle might be curbed by such a thing — until I was unwittingly thrust into the full-time role of “fourth-grader’s social director and plan coordinator.” And then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“All of this alleged progress means kids can’t control their own lives,” I grumped to my husband one day this spring after my son asked, for the umpteenth day in a row, to please send a text to Finley’s mom to ask if she could remind Finley to bring his baseball glove to the playground after school. “I mean, what have we done!? We don’t talk enough about this.”

And then, poof: Out came Jonathan Haidt’s best-seller, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. Suddenly this — iPhone-culture, childhood independence and autonomy — was all anyone was talking about. And rightly so: In his book, Haidt, a New York University social psychologist, validates every gut feeling, every article you’ve ever read about getting kids off screens and out to play, laying out with startling clarity the link between the rise of anxiety, depression and self-harm in young people and society’s relentless retreat from the real world into our virtual ones.

The effects, you’ve no doubt read, last well beyond childhood: As they’ve grown into young adulthood, Haidt notes, Gen Z has shown more patterns of being risk averse; they’re also lonelier, with fewer friends and shyer. They date less than previous generations. They have less sex. They work less, at least in the sense of getting jobs, and they are harder to work with.

The problem, he posits, isn’t just about the rise of a “phone-based childhood,” a life in which even very young children have increasingly spent much of their time online, then later on smartphones. (Much of Haidt’s research is devoted to showing what this does — nothing good! — to human development.) There’s also the dual trend of a decrease of “play-based childhoods.” He traces this pattern to the late 1980s, when “many parents in Anglo countries began to reduce children’s access to unsupervised outdoor free play out of media-fueled fears for their safety, even though the ‘real world’ was becoming increasingly safe in the 1990s.”

The upshot of all the overprotection, he writes, created new norms that have essentially deprived our kids of what they need to grow into thriving, happy adults. They need the chance to explore, he says. To play, to face some fears, to manage risks and responsibility, to learn how to solve problems, to build friendships … all without mom or dad hovering over them, helping them, watching them.

They need to be set free.

But … How?

It’s easy to paint “parents today” with a broad brush, all of us over-involved, coddling, helicopter types. (Haven’t we all read the trend stories?) In all honesty, though, I don’t actually know many people like this in real life. I do, however, know parents who can’t let their kids out to roam because of rampant violence in the neighborhoods. And I also know parents for whom giving their kids independence isn’t a choice, but a necessity — not everyone can pay for childcare while they work.

There’s also a perception that we’re afraid to give kids room to roam because of how we’ll be regarded as parents (too loose, lax, laissez faire), or maybe even get in trouble. (And it does bear noting that there is, in fact, a socioeconomic and often racial double-standard when it comes to which parents are perceived as “free-range” versus neglectful.) To this end, Haidt is one voice of many who advocate for “child-independence” laws that protect parents from prosecution for simply allowing kids to be unsupervised. (Currently eight states have these laws; Pennsylvania is not one of them.)

As they’ve grown into young adulthood, Gen Z has shown more patterns of being risk averse; they’re also lonelier, with fewer friends, and shyer. They date less than previous generations. They have less sex. They work less, at least in the sense of getting jobs, and they are harder to work with.

Even so, I still think that many (many!) parents have in our gut long since understood that autonomy, responsibility, independence and freedom are important for kids. Desirable. We’ve been reading versions of this for years — about risk playgrounds, about free play, about free-range kids. And truly: We get it! We want it! The problem isn’t so much overprotection on overdrive as it is — at least in part — the world we’ve created. I don’t mean this big scary world — I mean the world in which we’ve isolated ourselves and our kids with iPhones. The world — ahem, Fashion District — that bans teens from malls and parks and fairs. The world that leaves our rec centers underfunded and unstaffed and refuses to actively engage in creating safe streets.

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” one Philadelphian recently mused on Twitter/X not long ago, “if there were child-free grocery stores?”

I mean this type of world.

It can really make the prospect of sending your 8-year-old off to the Acme four blocks away for a gallon of milk a bit … daunting.

All of this is not just the job of parents. Our communities and our city could do more to facilitate some of the freedom and responsibility Philly’s kids need to thrive. Here, a few thoughts on how.

Calm the f***ing traffic, already

When I send my 10-year-old off alone to the neighborhood CVS or to the basketball court near the school a few blocks away, the thing I worry about the most isn’t violence (thankfully) or drugs or strangers. It’s cars, and how one second of his or someone else’s inattention anywhere along the way could kill him. And that’s just when he’s on foot. Riding a bike the way I once did, even younger than he is now? In the streets, feeling so gloriously free? Can’t do it. Because Philly suffers from too many of those seconds of inattention. Far more than it should. According to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philly, in 2023 alone, there were 126 traffic fatalities — 57 of which were pedestrians. And hit-and-run deaths are at an all-time high.

It doesn’t have to be so. This is a choice we make as a city.

How about some form of car-free school streets around every K-8 school in the city, as seen in Paris and Vancouver and London, which would help parents feel better about letting their young kids walk or bike to school on their own?

Take my own block, which is home to 29 children (half of them under the age of 10) and situated two blocks from a K-8 school. For many years, neighbors have begged the city via both Council and the Streets Department for a stop sign placed at a corner that would slow the drivers who regularly tear down the street at 40, 45 miles an hour … only to repeatedly be turned down. Not enough incidents have happened to merit a sign, they’ve told us. And so we wait. We watch. We hold our breath, and pray. Not exactly a conducive setting for letting children roam.

What would help — in addition to the new speed cameras Mayor Parker has announced — is a city that’s more responsive to requests like ours, pleas for speed bumps, stop signs, no parking zones and bump-outs, particularly near parks and schools. We want some urgency here. We want strategy.

And while we’re at it, how about some form of car-free school streets around every K-8 school in the city, as seen in Paris and Vancouver and London, which would help parents feel better about letting their young kids walk or bike to school on their own? On top of that, diverting traffic for a few hours on a street or two around a school to give kids a little more safe space to spread out and use as their own sends a message to young Philadelphians that these are their streets, too. Their city. And it is. We should occasionally act like it.

Steal this idea: starter spaces for independent play

At Le Terrain d’Aventure, a sprawling, adventure-focused playground in Paris’s Les Halles district, parents can drop kids ages 7 to 12 to play for an hour at a time, for free. Not only is there no expectation for parents to be involved in the goings-on of the children, but parents are not even allowed in; the only adults are a handful of paid animateurs (activity leaders) for supervision. Kids play with other kids; parents leave to go live their lives for an hour. Can you imagine what a gift this would be?

Actually, yes, a friend of mine said recently, when I wistfully mentioned this to her: “It reminds me of the play space at IKEA.” I’d forgotten that IKEA has a similar set-up for littler kids, wherein parents can drop their kids in a play space for a half-hour to an hour at a time, watched by a few designated child-minders. Kids play; parents shop. No charge. Everyone wins.

Not to make too much of these relatively small islands of independence for children — there are, after all, still adults on hand in both cases. But these spots — both conceived by Europeans, notably — feel like a sort of starter kit for free play: Go play, with strangers, for free, sans parent, with societal support. I want 10 of these places scattered in parks around the city, ASAP.

Create cooler spaces for bigger kids to play, too

For older children, more safe public spaces that actively welcome them would also help with Project Freedom. This is not a novel suggestion. In fact, we have some good models already, including our public pools (you only have to be 8 years old and 50 inches tall to swim without an adult, did you know that?), the pump track, Paine Park, Spruce Street Harbor Park, Dilworth, and FDR Park’s new Anna C. Verna Playground, specifically designed for all ages.

But it’s also true that these examples are all outdoors: When it’s winter or scalding or pouring outside, choices are drastically reduced. Meantime, other places young people want to be are unwelcoming or off-limits to them (see: the Fashion District, various retailers, the Shore), or just not as safe or appealing as they could be. Imagine, for instance, if we funded our neighborhood rec centers enough to make them all truly great places to hang. I’m talking both funding and greatness far beyond what Rebuild is doing: well-lit, safe, unlocked hangs with cool outdoor spaces and regular schedules, staffed by grown-ups, with snack bars and games, with basketballs and sports equipment at the ready — places empowered to partner with the city’s many nonprofits geared toward youth programming, from sports to arts and sciences, and more.

Invest in the 15-minute ’hood

When the Japanese reality show Old Enough first debuted on Netflix a few years back, so many of us Americans were entranced by the premise — all of these tiny children sent on errands out in their neighborhoods, alone! So competent! But part of the magic to this “alternate reality” of childhood independence, as one academic told Slate, is infrastructure: “Japanese cities are built on the concept that every neighborhood should function as a village. That planning paradigm means you have shops and small businesses in residential neighborhoods, which means there are places to go — places these kids can walk to.”

What would help is a city that’s more responsive to requests like ours, pleas for speed bumps, stop signs, no parking zones and bump-outs, particularly near parks and schools. We want some urgency here. We want strategy.

This is the driving theory behind the urbanist dream of a 15-minute or 20-minute neighborhood — wherein there’s a certain density of houses, services, retail, leisure. (And in fact, the aforementioned academic noted that kids in Japan were more likely to travel independently in mixed-use urbanized neighborhoods.) Because if children (and all of us!) can have, say, a library, a market, a school, a park, a rec center all within a short distance, then there’s not as much street-crossing necessary, not as much traffic navigating. Life gets smaller and bigger, all at once.

Just be neighborly

Another factor in the independence of the children we see in Old Enough, the Slate story noted, was the cultural commitment to community connections, in part forged by neighborhood events like block parties and festivals. These things help build up “a dense social network” that can help kids out, “like in Hajimete Episode 7, when the local hardware store owner helps Miro cross the street.” In fact, the story goes on, “in a survey of 14 countries, Japanese parents were the most likely to agree with the idea that neighborhood adults look out for other people’s children.”

But hey, wait: Philly has block parties! Philly is dense! Our rowhome- and city-block living means that nobody is ever really alone — literally or figuratively. My neighbors always hear my children … whether they want to or not. (Sorry, neighbors!) Truly, though, knowing there are friends at all ends of the block who know my kids and other parents at the playground when I’m not there really, plus all sorts of folks around the neighborhood who know my children at least by sight, really helps me feel like they’re okay out there. Not totally on their own.

This — the innate neighborliness that comes from living in this city— is a comfort and an asset we can all exploit. If we all talk to our neighbors, if we all connect with other parents, then we have a built-in village — eyeballs on the kids. Grown-ups looking out. Talk to older folks who grew up here, and they’ll describe exactly this, which is also a world similar to the one I grew up in, a million miles away, in a leafy Southern suburb: an invested, connected community that transcends place, time and iPhones.

Not to say that an engaged community is a total silver bullet — but it helps. This is true of all of these tools, these fixes. Nothing completely alleviates the emotional labor and angst involved in helping grow our kids’ sense of independence and autonomy in a society that has, in hundreds of ways, discouraged these things. But more buy-in from our neighbors and our city could make changing the norm far easier for all of us.


Children play in the Dilworth Park fountains outside City Hall. Photo by Theo Wyss-Flamm.

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