Texas State Fair minors policy is a sad sign of the times | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey


This fall, minors won’t be allowed into the State Fair of Texas after 5 p.m. without a chaperone. What a sad sign of the times.

The fair announced its new policy Tuesday with a news release calling it a public safety issue. Fairgoers age 17 or younger who want in after 5 p.m. will need a chaperone who is at least 21. Once inside, minors don’t have to stay with their chaperones.

State Fair spokesperson Karissa Condoianis told us this is a trend in her business. State fairs in California, Florida, Kentucky, Indiana, South Carolina and Wisconsin have all made the move. Some, like South Carolina, have had the policy for years and continue to update it.

So have other venues. Southern California’s Knott’s Berry Farm, New Jersey’s second-largest mall and even fast-food restaurants have announced similar measures this year.

Nor is this a new idea. In the mid-2010s, close to 80 malls instituted similar restrictions, according to Yahoo! News. NorthPark Center instituted a similar policy in 2012. When the Mall of America in Minnesota instituted a curfew for teens in 1996, it made national news and was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Stories about rowdy teens in public places are common. Last year, the Texas State Fair closed an hour early one night after a group of teens caused a panic, shouting false reports of an active shooter. This summer, the Frisco Fair also closed early after a disruption involving gunshots.

Marla Calico, president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, told us there was a spate of similar incidents across the country when fairs started to reopen after COVID-19. Most involved teens. Many involved attempts to incite panic, she said. In March, several people were injured when kids started a stampede at the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair.

We certainly can’t blame the fair for wanting to keep visitors safe. That’s what good hosts do. And a brawl or other misbehavior could damage the fair’s reputation and keep other visitors away.

But we can’t help lament the loss of another unsupervised space young people desperately need to learn how to become mature adults.

Much research has been done in recent years about the effects of limiting kids’ agency and unsupervised play. Books like Free-Range Kids: How Parents and Teachers Can Let Go and Let Grow by Lenore Skenazy, and The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have challenged assumptions about parents’ duties to protect kids from reasonable harm and failure, especially older children and teens.

Haidt, who spoke recently at the Tate Lecture Series at Southern Methodist University, has a practice of asking his audiences what age they were when their parents let them leave home unattended. It’s interesting to see the responses. Older audience members such as baby boomers were wandering out on their own in middle childhood. Generation Xers were able to venture out a little later. But younger audience members consistently report being in their mid-teens before they have the freedom to even go around the neighborhood alone.

These days, kids are not left unsupervised very often, and, if they are, there is an electronic babysitter from a phone to a video game that keeps them occupied. There have been cases where leaving kids without chaperones has been grounds for harassment and even arrest. The news stories are plentiful. And while serious neglect certainly damages and endangers kids, so does overprotectiveness.

That’s even more salient when considered in the context of steadily improving child safety. Rates of child mortality, missing children and vehicle-pedestrian accidents have all been on a decadeslong decline, according to reporting by The Washington Post.

But it’s hard to convince parents of that when they also see reports of school shootings and horrific crashes.

Since 1993, Gallup has surveyed Americans about their perceptions of danger and compared those responses to actual crime rates. In 20 out of the 24 surveys conducted, at least 60% of U.S. adults have overestimated risks, saying they believe there is more crime than the year before, despite a downward trend in crime since the ‘90s.

Kids learn from going out on their own, socializing without adult supervision, taking risks and making mistakes. They learn to resolve differences and build resiliency before the stakes get too high.

Those who don’t have that sort of freedom often grow up to inhabit a world that seems very scary. There is little doubt that this dynamic has contributed, at least in part, to the cultural milieu producing record rates of adolescent mental health problems, and what U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called an epidemic of loneliness and isolation, especially since the pandemic.

Eight states, including Texas, have even passed laws protecting reasonable childhood independence. In 2021, the Legislature passed a law related to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services that stipulated that unsupervised play alone is not grounds for child removal.

The State Fair of Texas can’t be expected to police the behavior of thousands of kids, nor to fix our cultural problems involving troubled teens. That’s not fair to the fair. But this feels like a milestone on the road away from healthy adolescent independence.

The fair has always been one of those classic settings where kids, especially teens, can be set free in an enclosed, relatively safe environment. It’s a place for first dates, forged friendships and coming-of-age memories, whether it’s bonding with a buddy or even a first kiss on the Ferris wheel.

Maybe kids are misbehaving in public places because we aren’t giving them enough chances to learn how to behave in public places.

The more we take that away, the less they will learn.

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