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Originally published July 5, 2013 at 4:04 PM | Page modified July 8, 2013 at 12:46 PM

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Editorial notebook: Is it safe for kids to camp in backyard alone?

Jonathan Martin daughter’s request to camp out in the backyard sparked a safety debate about stranger danger.

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This is one of those "safety in numbers" situations. One kid sleeping in the... MORE
Sleeping out was common when I was a kid. Smoked Pall Malls then and made myself sick... MORE
Times and places have changed. In my youth (gosh, some 70 years ago), we walked a... MORE

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MY daughter came home from her friend Mia’s house during this week’s heat wave, her eyes bright with anticipation. “I want to camp in the backyard like Mia does,” Anna said, with the finality of a 7-year-old.

I had a flashback to my own starlit campouts. I grinned. My 11-year-old son was game. Great idea.

“You’re going to be sleeping out there with them, of course,” my wife said, with equal finality.

Where I envisioned the two of them, alone, reading by flashlight, swapping jokes, stargazing, my wife went straight to her fears of stranger danger.

Living a few blocks from Aurora Avenue North in Wallingford, we lock our doors each night for safety. We’ve had a rash of neighborhood break-ins.

How could you consider, she asked, leaving our most precious items unattended?

So began a minor skirmish in a larger parental debate. To hover, focused on safety first, or be a laissez faire parent, raising free-range kids?

I was a free-range kid, left to build forts, bike to town and walk a literal country mile home from school. When my kids were small enough to fit in a BabyBjörn, I turned them face-out, so they could see what I saw.

My wife turned them in, facing her. Her worst fears of stranger danger were confirmed when a strange dude tried to snatch a 3-year-old out of a backyard in White Center in June.

I presented our debate to author and lecturer Lenore Skenazy of freerangekids.com. She’s on my side. Without a parent hovering, she said, kids problem solve, persevere, mature emotionally. That makes kids leaders, she says. She calls this argument “yuppie jujitsu.”

And here are the facts: Nationwide, about 115 kids a year are abducted in stereotypical stranger-danger scenarios. In contrast, 1,140 children 14 and under were killed and 171,000 injured in car crashes.

Children die falling down stairs and from lightning strikes. Awful, but a life constrained by fear of the rare has consequences for a child as well.

In the end, my wife won; I value marital harmony. Tents popped up, sleeping bags unzipped and Anna and I read Harry Potter by lantern. Our sleep was interrupted by a raccoon fighting a cat and by garbage trucks at 4:30 a.m.

But what Anna will remember is the electric color of sky after dusk, before night, when she popped her head out of the tent, alone.

Jonathan Martin


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