I won’t go so far as to say I was raised by wolves.

Still, by the time I was eight years old I was painfully aware that my own parents, and the parents of most of my friends, did not conform to what television was telling us. Leave It to Beaver was not, it seemed, a documentary and my own attitudes toward parenting were probably influenced more by real life than it was by the Cleavers.

My mother never wore pearls while vacuuming. From the time I was six years old, vacuuming was my job while mom worked long hours as a cleaning lady at the local university. My father worked in a steel mill, often pulling overtime hours when he could, and when finally he stumbled home exhausted, he didn’t want to deal with domestic problems. So I, along with most of the friends I’d made in the neighbourhood, were left to fend for ourselves.

During the summer months, we pretty much ran wild, with the only real rule being “Come home when the street lights come on.” At that time of year, that may have been 9 p.m.

During the winter months, the early onset of darkness led to that rule being relaxed. I had a paper route at eight years of age and was never home from that job before dark.

But times have changed.

When I had children of my own, the world was different and we tended to keep a closer eye on our children.

We weren’t yet helicopter parents—the term hadn’t yet been coined—but media sensationalism had imbued a fear of abduction in our psyches that caused us to ensure that there was always an adult available should trouble arise. My children still played outdoors and went to call on friends in the neighbourhood and sometimes disappeared for hours on end as they went to the park or on some adventure in the neighbourhood, but we generally had a good idea of where they were and they knew they could come home to us or to a babysitter if there was a problem.

And then, something happened.

By the time my grandchildren were born my own, children had become part of a generation that arranged “play dates” for the kids and believed that letting kids play on the block or at the park without supervision was tantamount to child endangerment.

There have been a plethora of cases in recent years in both the United States and Canada where assumingly well-intentioned neighbours have called in authorities to investigate cases where children have been left to their own devices. In one case a mother was charged for letting her nine-year-old daughter play alone in a park.

In 2015 a B.C. Supreme court found that an eight-year-old is too young to be left alone at home, with the trial judge going even further to observe that kids under 10 couldn’t be safely left unsupervised at home.

Last year, Child and Family Services responded to a complaint against a mother who had left her two children, aged 10 and five, to play in their own backyard, unsupervised.The question that comes to mind is what has changed?

Child abduction is an ever present fear and it strikes at a visceral level. I know that, for myself, even the thought of my grandkids being whisked away by some stranger leaves a knot in my stomach and gives rise to horrific images of helpless fear. But the truth is that “stranger danger” is largely a myth.

The most recent statistics gathered by the RCMP show that of 41,343 reports of missing children in Canada in 2014, 29 were related to stranger abduction. Figures for sexual or physical abuse are equally telling. Your child is exponentially more likely to be harmed by a family member or someone they know than by a stranger.
Over the years I’ve kept abreast of these issues and have debated a lot of this information with friends and family at various times, never really resolving what is a complex question.

That’s why, when I recently went to visit my son in his new home in a military housing neighbourhood in which everyone is required to have children to qualify for the housing, the experience was like opening a time capsule.

I drove up and was greeted with a cry of “Hi Grampa!” from the bed of a Ford F-150 where my grandson was playing with what appeared to be about 10 other boys.When I went into my son’s house and commented on what I’d seen, he was unconcerned.

“Yeah, they have permission to play in there. He locks the truck so they can’t get in the cab,” said my son.

Since moving into the neighbourhood my son has encountered a very different belief system when it comes to supervising the play of children.

“There are so many kids here, and everyone living here is military, so we just kind of let them run. They know they can come and get help if something happens.”
When my grandson finally came in, flushed and smiling, he had stories to tell about his new friends and how they were going to build a fort and, oh yeah, he had to take his Nerf guns out to defend the fort, and by the way, could they have a snack in case they got hungry?

It got me to thinking.

Somewhere along the line, our neighbourhoods have become sanitized with child play protocols in which imagination, friendships and social interaction, and generally fun are things to be programmed and supervised. In a world where parents are content to let their wee ones stare endlessly at videos and computer games, the idea of just going out to play without an approved plan has been deemed to be the real danger.

I’m not sure. Maybe, just maybe, we need to allow our children a chance to play in the back of a truck or build a fort out of materials rife with potential splinters. It won’t kill them, and it may make them a wee bit stronger and better prepared for life.

Tim Collins is a writer and freelance journalist living and working in Victoria.