You may have noticed fewer gaggles of tweens and teens roaming the popular hangouts of our youth.
All summer long, Valleyfair has been requiring children and teens to be accompanied by adults. After 4 p.m., those 15 and under must be with a chaperone who is at least 21. The same rule applies at the Mall of America after 3 p.m. Across the country, other shopping centers, amusement parks and restaurants have been closing their doors to unaccompanied minors.
The measures are intended to prevent unruly behavior that has escalated in recent years in public places, sometimes turning violent. It was just last December that a 19-year-old man was killed at the mall's Nordstrom and multiple teens were arrested in the shooting.
So, I get why some private businesses are tightening up admission in the name of public safety. As a shopper, I certainly don't want to be shot outside the Lego store. But it saddens me that some of these traditional teen haunts aren't as accessible as they once were.
After talking to Phyllis Fagell, I became more convinced that if the trend continues, the restriction of third spaces — social hubs where teens can gather between work and school — will have a long-term cost.
"These edicts prohibiting any child from going to the mall unaccompanied, regardless of their behavior, are too far sweeping," said Fagell, a school therapist, licensed clinical counselor and author of a new book, "Middle School Superpowers."
Like me, Fagell, who lives in Bethesda, Md., basically grew up in shopping malls. "That was where I learned how to do everything," she said, from budgeting money to even finding her way after getting lost.
Malls were where children of the 1980s and '90s took part in an essential rite of passage — entering a public space without our parents. It was also a developmental milestone satisfying a primal need.
When children become teens and tweens, they start to pull away from their parents and identify more with their peers, Fagell explained. Yet they're still impressionable, and the values their parents have instilled in them still hold weight.
"They're also at an age where they're thrill-seeking and looking for novelty," she said. "Novelty gets a bad name, because when we think of risk-taking, we go straight to drinking or vaping or shoplifting. But novelty also includes going to the mall, taking the train downtown, going to the movies with a friend, or riding a roller coaster at an amusement park."
As adults, she said, we ought to be giving young people opportunities to seek that kind of safe novelty, so they don't pursue riskier behavior.
It's not like teens have suddenly lost all third spaces. There are still plenty of malls and movie theaters where they can get together, and fear not, they are not twiddling their thumbs at home.
But there's an irony in restricting today's kids from traditional hangouts and simultaneously telling them to get off their darn phones. We are pushing them farther away following a period of radical isolation. We're asking them to catch up on all the skills that were delayed during the pandemic, including in-person socialization, but erasing the venues for where they can practice those skills.
Will they find a spot in the woods, a friend's basement, or some shadowy corner of the internet?
Of course, if malls and amusement parks are to be safe, the village must be all in: Security officers patrol the premises, kids keep mischief to a minimum, and parents hold their kids accountable if they don't.
The Mall of America first issued a parental escort policy back in 1996 — initially only on Friday and Saturday evenings. In 2020, it began enforcing the policy daily from 3 p.m. until close. Valleyfair's owner, Cedar Fair, implemented its chaperone policies this year at most of its parks across the country. The decision came after more than 100 teens broke out into a brawl at the Worlds of Fun park in Kansas City on its opening weekend in April.
It's not hard to empathize with a woman who felt trapped in her car with her children as they tried to leave the park. "It was not Worlds of Fun," she told a TV reporter at the time. "It was worlds of chaos, worlds of fear."
We'd all be disturbed by that chaos. Chaperone policies might make sense in the short term. But they're punishing all young people, including the vast majority who are taking no part in the violence. Teens need community, and we all need security. Finding that balance is the answer, and we're not there yet.