Who are the world's strictest parents?

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I once rode my bike naked. I was 7, in the Central Valley of California and as free as the wind — until a concerned neighbor de-liberated me. My mom just laughed, but according to researchers at the Policy Studies Institute at the University of Westminster, her tune might have been different if we lived elsewhere. Researchers have found:

To come up with the ranking of parental paranoia, researchers conducted interviews with 18,303 children and a sampling of their parents in 16 countries. Defining strictness in terms of freedom, or the lack thereof, to do things like ride a bus or cross the street alone, they decreed Nordic countries, along with Germany, the most laissez-faire. But in South Africa, 80 percent of parents think their kids would get hit by a car if they crossed the street alone. (Some South African parents were even featured on a BBC reality show called World's Strictest Parents.) In Italy and Portugal, this figure is even higher.

South Africa isn't much of a surprise, given the widespread lack of safety in urban areas like Cape Town, where most of the surveyed children live. But why Italy and Portugal? Not exactly infamous thickets of crime. (Stop assuming every Italian is in the mob — that's just Sicily.) In these coastal countries, family bonding might account for the low score. Kids are out and about, but with their parents in tow.

The research makes sense when looked at in light of other work. When researchers compared their rankings to UNICEF's "child well-being" country rankings, for example, they found that the higher the well-being, the greater degree of child independence. Portugal and Italy both received a low score from UNICEF and didn't get a thumbs-up from the OECD education ratings, either — another relationship the researchers found to be consistent. South Africa ranks 118th worldwide on the UNDP's Human Development Index, with an average of just under 10 years of schooling nationwide. Ben Fagan-Watson, a research fellow at the Policy Studies Institute, says this is the first study mapping child-freedom trends at such a wide level, and when used against large sets of data like these, it has the potential to shape policy.

To be sure, this study isn't the final word on parental behavior. It examined only 16 countries, first of all, and relied on volunteer academics in each of them. Six of the countries are in Europe, and none of the others is in Africa. Strict might not be the right word when you look at other factors involved, either. That plague of parents who are scared to let their kids cross the street? More practical than harsh. Roads in South Africa are notoriously dangerous for pedestrians — even boxed wine implores buyers not to drink and walk on the road. Portuguese and Italian parents also cite traffic as their No.1 fear. Yet authors note that the correlation between traffic deaths in a country and the study results is weak. Fagan-Watson says that in the latter countries, the fear might be more about perception than reality, with a dose of peer pressure to be a "good parent."

Patric Solomons, the director of a child-focused organization in South Africa called Molo Songololo, says there are "a lot of shortfalls" with the study. The Western Cape, where the study in SA was conducted, has "the biggest gap between the haves and the have-nots," he says, adding that it's probably one of the most unequal provinces in SA. Even in the city, there are high levels of poverty next to big money, says Solomons, and how those kinds of contradictions impact parenting "can be quite telling" — and wasn't factored into the study. It's true: While the study did attempt to pick kids across various location (rural, suburban, urban) and socioeconomic statuses, in South Africa all kids interviewed were in Cape Town or the areas surrounding it, excluding townships. Solomons also questions the very definition of strict parenting: "Does it mean there are high levels of neglect?"

The study raises one other issue we should all consider: Have our children lost the ability to run around freely outside? It has certainly been in decline over the past few decades, and researchers at the Policy Studies Institute fear that something is being lost with the "corporatization of play." Anyone who grew up running wild outside can vouch for its importance. The researchers say it can even help develop social skills and prevent kids from getting fat. So maybe the burden lies not on parents, but on city planners. Build cities around outdoor safe zones for children and everyone wins, whether in South Africa or Finland. More Vitamin D for our kids? Yes, please!

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