There’s a paradox at the core of the issue: today’s children (and, within the context of this discussion, I mean middle-class children) are, by and large, less free than their parents, who were raised in the seventies and eighties, were. There’s a lot more homework now than there used to be; the hurdles to leap in education, from early-childhood high-stakes testing to endemic and intensive S.A.T. prep to the careful crafting of a college-ready record and a job-ready résumé, are built higher and spaced tighter, and the general awareness of life-changing dangers they invoke is constant and jitter-inducing. The recent return to the news of the horrific fate of Etan Patz reminded readers that, for many parents, his disappearance in 1979 was the Day Zero for new limits on their independent wanderings. (Growing up in the sixties, I remember walking through parking lots and back alleys and along urban sidewalks and into a nearby heavily wooded park when I was less than ten.)
Children today channel much of their discipline into relentless academic and parascholastic duties and into their own circumspect mastering of a tightrope walk that’s straighter and narrower than that of their parents ever was.