The crime rate overall in the US is lower today than it was when I was a kid. [source] In all honestly, it was more dangerous for us to play outside and ride our bikes in the 80s than it is for our kids to do the same now. And yet, I hear from a lot of parents that they just cannot conceive of letting their kids do the same things they did, the same things they remember fondly as integral parts of their childhood. Sure I have friends who are helicopter parents, overprotective and proud of it. But I have friends who are fairly reasonable people, who still worry that letting their children go on unscripted bike rides will somehow give permission to wandering herds of pedophiles (they travel in herds, right?) to snatch their children.
I remember when my daughter was ten and was supposed to meet me at a friend's house. I showed up alone and then told the woman that Ryan would be there shortly; she was riding her bike over from a sleepover at her friend's. This woman, whose own daughter was nine at the time, asked me when I had started letting Ryan ride her bike by herself, like just off down the street alone. I can't remember now what I answered, but I do remember that this lady, an oddly optimistic woman usually, was just shocked because she didn't let her kids ride their bikes by themselves. They went on family bike rides together, but no one could just go to their friend's house or to the park or even just ride around aimlessly. And this woman even said that when she was a kid she rode her bike all over town, from morning until dusk.
It's hard for me to let my kids go. At just about every stage of my kids' development, some part of me rebels. I cried the first time Ryan went to preschool. And even last year when she started junior high. But I had to leave her at preschool, and let her go to junior high. And I made the conscious decision, at several points, to think back to my own childhood in this same small town, and set reasonable boundaries for her. She could ride her bike anywhere south of the tracks and north of the high school. A couple years later she could cross the tracks but not the highway. Now, at almost 13, she can ride her bike (or new electric scooter from Santa) all over town.
In case you're thinking I am just ridiculously permissive, keep in mind that my daughter has her cell phone on her at all times. Twenty years ago I had no cell phone, no way for my mother to find me if I was out of earshot. She told me to be home at 6:00 and I came home at 6:00, but she never knew where I was until then. And that was fine. It was great! I went on long bike rides, wandered through parks, found toads in the back of the cemetery, sat and read at the library, lots of fun stuff. And I want my kids to come up with their own fun memories of bike rides and toad hunting and neighborhood exploring. I want to raise free range kids.