Dr. Jim Sears: Give Children Freedom to Explore

Nicole recently was charged with felony child neglect after she let her 7-year-old son Dominic walk by himself to a park that was a half mile away, a 10-to 15-minute walk.

When he passed the local pool, someone stopped him to ask where his mother was. Dominic told CNN he got scared and ran to the park. The people at the pool called the police, who found him playing at the park, according to reports. The police drove him home and arrested his mom. She faces five years in prison.

ER physician Dr. Travis Stork notes that the town in Florida where they live has the lowest crime rate in the state.

“This really bugs me because if this child couldn’t go to the park, what’s the alternative?" pediatrician Dr. Jim Sears asks." He’s going to sit at home and play video games. A kid’s got to get out and explore. This is a good mom."

Editor's Note: After the show, Dr. Sears contributed this blog post about why he feels strongly that children should have an opportunity to play outside and gain independence.

On the show, we discussed the controversy over the mom who let her 7-year-old walk to the park by himself. There are a lot of strong opinions out there about this on both sides, but I just wanted to chime in a bit.

First off, I know this is a good mom who really loves her son and wants the best for him. I don't know any details about the safety of the neighborhood, but she certainly felt that it was safe for him. She also made sure that he had a cell phone with him and had it hanging from a lanyard around his neck so he wouldn't drop it. I don't want to debate whether this was safe or not, but I want to point out how great it is for kids to explore their environment and experience some independence (while staying safe, of course!).

This probably needs to start with, "When I was a kid ..." except that sounds a little cliché. But I do wish kids these days could have the same freedoms that we had. We walked the three to four blocks to school with our siblings and neighborhood friends. Then after school, we usually would end up at the park for most of the afternoon running around and playing — staying active — finally coming home when we got hungry for dinner. We would sometimes (OK, maybe often) get ourselves into a little trouble, but then we would learn to get ourselves out of it. We learned fort-building skills, "taking turns on the swing set" negotiation skills, and we could navigate the town on our bikes.

My son just turned 16 and is starting to drive. The problem is that for the past 5 years, his car rides have been spent face down on his smart phone or game, instead of watching where we are going. Now that he's behind the wheel, he doesn't know his way around!

It would be great to think of ways to let our kids have just a little bit of freedom to explore on their own, and I'll let you in on a little secret: I didn't learn about this until just a few years ago, but many of those times as a kid when we thought we were off exploring on our own, one of our parents actually was keeping an eye on us from a distance!

— By Jim Sears

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