WHITNEY: Times are different from when I was a child

To be completely honest, I had a “Leave It To Beaver” childhood.

For the largest part of my youngest years, I lived in a small neighborhood in Saginaw bordered by the Saginaw River, a little bit of woods, some train tracks, a park and a condo community for retirees. Our neighborhood — the same my father grew up in, and where his parents still lived for a few years after we moved there — had four streets, lots of other kids and many watchful parents. All the kids traveled in packs loosely organized by age, but we all convened at the house of one family who had a backyard big enough to accommodate an ice rink in the winter and a soccer field in the summer.

If someone’s mom had to run an errand, another mom stepped up and became the supervisor for the afternoon. That didn’t necessarily mean she was watching you in her own living room, just that she was the one you’d run to when you fell off your bike two blocks away.

Even though we had free run of those four streets, we weren’t allowed to cross “the busy street” to go to the park alone. At the time, that seemed pretty restrictive. I could stand on the tracks at the edge of the neighborhood and see the dang park. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t go with my friends and without an adult. My mom couldn’t see me on the tracks or at the park, so why did it matter where I was if I was out of sight either way? I didn’t feel like I had free run when I was nine years old, and the words “adult supervision” sounded to me like nails scratching down a chalkboard.

Families helping each other and kids running free. Compared to the lives of kids today and my own peers, my childhood was an anomaly. It’s the type of upbringing more often shared by baby boomers, who wax poetic about the experience in “Back in my day” stories and use it as a baseline measurement of how off-track society has gotten.

I’ll admit, things are markedly different for my daughter, who I’ll never allow to go to a park alone even if it’s across the street from our house.

But when I talk to people about my free-range childhood full of friendly neighbors, especially if they’re older, they’re quick to say, “It’s too bad things aren’t still that way.”

And that’s kind of a shame, especially considering the amount of criticism we see reflected in the news of single mom Debra Harrell, who was was arrested for dropping her nine-year-old daughter off to play at the park while she went to work, or of Shanesha Taylor, the woman who left her kids in a car while she went for a job interview.

Instead of looking at these mothers’ choices and saying, “I can’t believe they’d do that!” we need to ask a few questions.

First, why do we feel that our children can’t be left to play in a park on their own these days? It’s a completely justified feeling, and one I share, but what’s changed since my parents were little? Second, how could their family, friends or neighbors — or, for that matter, society as a whole — offered them more support so leaving their children alone wasn’t the only viable option?

I won’t leave my daughter alone at the park because, yes, I’m too scared that someone could be lurking in the bushes waiting to snatch her, but also because I don’t need to leave her alone in the park.

When I go to work, I’m able to leave her with her dad or pay for her to go to daycare. When it’s time to play, I’m able to go along. I’m sure Harrell and Taylor, and many others like them, don’t have the same great option.

How we can make it easier for parents and their children to live carefree? Running free might be exactly what “these dang kids today need.”