"Bye!" called a girl, leaving on foot for a diving clinic at the local pool.

"Bye!" called a boy, heading out on his bike for a martial arts class in downtown Bethesda.

"Bye!" said their mother to the rest of the children through the speakerphone in the kitchen.

She was calling from the car. For the first time she was trusting, in a way that is now scandalously countercultural, that various children were capable of getting themselves to and from their own events -- without her to chaperone them.

As she said "bye" again and ended the call, she was swept with a wave of light horror. She was really doing it: She was actually permitting her children to go into the world alone!

"They'll be fine," she thought, trying to shake off her trepidation. "We did it. Our parents did it. Children today are just as capable as we were. Aren't they?"

Like most adults over 40, she remembered the days when children got themselves home from school and frittered away hours before parents got home with such deeply unenriching activities as yakking on the phone or watching lurid ABC after-school specials.

Some latchkey children probably got into trouble but most were more interested in gaining access to the TV, a box of crackers, and an unguarded jar of peanut butter.

Getting around unsupervised used to be part of normal childhood. It could be boring, and sometimes scary, but it taught independence. City kids penetrated the mysteries of mass transit, and learned how to fend off weirdoes on the subway. Rural children got used to walking along the side of roads, and learned how to fend off weirdoes in cars.

Most of the time, though, no weirdoes were involved, and children did just fine. They became competent because they were allowed to develop the capacity to navigate the world, without grown-ups constantly hovering. For most children, those days are gone.

You don't have to be a free-range fanatic to find something insufferably suffocating about the way children now live: Carried from the confines of home to the cocoon of school and back again, with a stop or two at an enclosed facility in which athletic or academic enrichment is delivered (after payment is received).

Risk, daring, ennui? They've been banished. Even peanut butter is suspect now, what with the allergy epidemic.

The antidote to the cosseting and smothering is, of course, for parents to let go. Let children get themselves places -- the store, the pool, the library -- and get themselves home again without a chaperone.

"I'm back!" called the girl two hours later, returning happily from the pool in the twilight.

"I'm back," called the boy, three hours later, having navigated a bike trail in the dark.

"I'm back," whispered their intensely relieved mother late that night, as she went from room to room kissing the sleeping children.

We should trust them. They can do it. But wow is it hard to let go!

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at ">mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.