All the kerfuffle over the columnist who let her nine-year-old ride the subway alone has led to some interesting discussions on writer's boards about how much freedom to give child characters in middle grade novels. What's your opinion? Do we pretend that kids are being raised the same way we were, and let our child characters go around town by themselves doing interesting things and getting into scrapes? (And then kids read it as fantasy?) Do we make up reasons why this particular kid has freedom, like the parents are out of town or something? Or do we have them sit at home texting their friends or going on carefully supervised playdates or having their "adventures" in some after-school program, because that's what real middle-class American kids do?
How many of us haven't had the experience, as a child, of the thrill of getting to choose what we do, free of adult supervision? These are confidence- and independence-building experiences.
And how many of us haven't had the experience of realizing, while we're doing something (or shortly thereafter), that we've put ourselves in a stupid, dangerous position? These are learning experiences, and thank goodness our parents never found out about them.
It's hard to be a parent. It's hard to look at your children and know that they need experiences that build the skills of independence. And to look at them and know that if anything ever happened to them, your life would be over. It's hard to hear about the snatchings that happen in people's front yards (or even in their homes!) and not get awfully paranoid. Reasonably, we know that there are not more predators now than there were when we were children, or when our parents were children. There's just more news. But that doesn't make it easier for mothers and fathers.
I think the bottom line for writers is that there are still lots of different childhoods to be had in this country alone. It's certainly unusual to find a parent who lets their nine year old wander around a city alone, so if you describe a family like this, be sure to include the details that make those parents believable. On the other hand, the Penderwick girls and Ingrid Levin-Hill leave the house regularly to wander around in the woods. Their parents are still protective parents, but the authors have grounded us in a setting that makes these parents' attitudes believable.
Different parents are protective in different ways, and that's what results in the different degrees of freedom that different children experience. Sometimes it seems like writers think they're just writing about their child mc. Well, yes and no. Don't forget to give your reader a sense of who's making the rules: understanding the major forces in a child character's life is part of understanding the character. And for most children, there are no forces more powerful than their parents.