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How is it that Americans have come to believe that children can’t walk alone safely? And what does this tell us about American civil society?

A generation ago, a regular pleasure of childhood was the chance to explore your neighborhood by yourself or with your buddies.

No longer so! It’s so exceptional to let kids wander on their own that a ten-year-old brother and his six-year-old sister walking home from a local park were stopped by police. The local Child Protective Services has launched an investigation that included interviewing the children at school without the parents’ knowledge.

As a parent who lets her own nine-year-old range through our neighborhood, only about two miles away, this news story—and others like it—sure worry me. What if Child Protective Services investigates me next?

But, more broadly, how is it that Americans have come to believe that children can’t walk alone safely? And what does this tell us about American civil society?

University of Virginia political scientist Leonard Schoppa has an interesting answer to this question. His answer has something to do with what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “restlessness of Americans” and their tendency to move frequently from place to place.

Schoppa argues that American “restlessness” explains in part the refusal to let children walk alone by contrasting the United States with Japan. In 2009, only 12 percent of U.S. children walked or biked to school, while 98 percent of Japanese children walked to school. Indeed, many Japanese school districts prohibit parents from driving their children to school—imagine the outcry if a U.S. school district tried that!

What could make for this huge gap in rates of children getting to school on foot?

The key, Schoppa argues, is that—unlike their U.S. peers—Japanese parents can’t easily move house. Rules around home mortgages are much stricter than in the United States, and fees associated with new rental agreements discourage renters from moving. Consequently, the Japanese move much less frequently than Americans:

Although 10.3 percent of American homeowners had moved in the past fifteen months, just 6.1 percent of Japanese homeowners had moved within the past five years. Japanese renters move less frequently as well, with the proportion reporting that the moved with the past five years (36.4 percent) roughly equal to the proportion of U.S. renters who had move in just one year (38.3 percent).

As Schoppa notes, both the Japanese and Americans are “joiners” with high rates of membership in civic associations. But while Americans tend to join national civic associations, the Japanese—because they stay put—become more deeply engaged with their local community, joining local civic associations at higher rates than American do:

PTA membership rates in Japan are four times as high as current rates in the United States. Japanese participate in volunteer firefighting organizations at twice the rate of U.S. residents. Meanwhile, 90 percent of Japanese belong to neighborhood associations, with an estimated 40 to 70 percent serving as active members.

This means that the Japanese have extremely rich local civic networks to address concerns about the safety of schoolchildren walking alone. In the wake of two prominent 2005 child abduction cases, these networks mobilized to implement programs to assuage parents’ anxiety and 80,000 people volunteered to help children walk safely to school. Some volunteers serve in “wan wan patrols”—or “woof woof patrols”—of volunteers attired with special sashes who agree to walk their dogs during the times children are walking to and from school. (It seems characteristic of Japan that they not only drew upon local civic networks but turned to technology: some school districts ordered digital tracking devices for each child’s schoolbag that send an email alert to the child’s parents when he crosses the schoolyard threshold.)

Americans’ frequent moves, Schoppa suggests, keeps Americans from being committed enough to their neighborhoods to be able to muster a similar response. And so Americans don’t let their children walk to school or anywhere else—and some even call the police if they see someone else’s child walking alone. If Schoppa’s right, we might ask what other local civic institutions are weaker than they might otherwise be if Americans were less “restless”—and what’s lost from American childhood when we don’t know or trust our neighbors enough to let our children go out among them.

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