It's a conversation I'm hearing more and more lately: Is it OK to leave your kids alone, and at what age? In the car? At the snowboard park? To walk to school? At home?

It is on the front page of the Chicago Tribune -- in an article where one mom said other parents thought she was crazy for letting an 8 year old and a 6 year old walk one block to school. It's a hot topic in the blogosphere, where moms discuss whether it is ever ok to leave the kids in the car, even if you park right by the door of the dry cleaners and you can see them the whole time. And an online discussion among Chicago parents created quite the controversy when mothers discussed how far they felt comfortable ranging from their house or condo while the baby napped inside.

There's no doubt that there has been a big change in parenting since I was a child in the 1970s and '80s. It's not a given that a child today can walk to school alone at any age, be left at home without a sitter at some point in their pre-teen years, or even play in the neighborhood without parental supervision.

These changes were brought about by many factors. A big one was the greater awareness and fear of child abduction, which started with the efforts of John Walsh, father of child murder victim Adam Walsh,  and stoked today by high-profile coverage of certain missing children nationwide.

But crime statistics will tell us that America is NOT a much more dangerous place than it was in the 1980s, and I am a parent who tends to chafe at the expectation that I will forever be at my child's side. It's something I've been thinking about a lot as my firstborn prepares to enter kindergarten this fall. Beverly Cleary's Ramona walked to kindergarten with a friend, crossing several streets on the way there. Sure, that was the 1950s (and Ramona is a fictional child), but still -- our kindergarten is two blocks from our front door.

I would LOVE to approach the mom of a kid around the block from us, who will also be going to kindergarten this fall, and suggest that, once our girls have settled into their school routine, they walk together. But I won't do this, because I fear that mom would freak out at the suggestion. I know that she paid a 6th grader in the neighborhood to walk her 2nd-grade son to school, so how could she be ok with 5-year-olds making the trip? I don't know if the school would even allow it.

I won't take on that battle, but I do expect my kid to start walking alone as soon as we can get away with it without the school reporting us to social services. I tend to be on the outlying edge of most of these safety vs. independence (and practicality) discussions, and when I err on the side of safety, it's mostly because I fear getting in trouble than because I genuinely fear harm will come to my kids.

I'm not saying there is no danger in this world, but I think a lot of "the rules" provide a marginal or zero increase in safety. When I schlep the toddler out of the car and across a busy street in icy conditions in order to drop her sister off at a building in plain view of my car, I have to ask myself -- is the toddler REALLY safer crossing this icy street in my arms than she would have been strapped snugly into her car seat? Not really, but if I chose the latter, I could be arrested.

Like so many aspects of child rearing in today's culture, the level of acceptable indendence for kids lacks any agreed-upon norms. The discussions I linked to above show that -- some parents are so hands-off even I raised my eyebrows (Going out to a neighborhood deli, beyond the range of the baby monitor, while the baby sleeps in the house? Dropping off an 8-year-old for a few hours of solo snowboarding?), while many others practiced safety measures that I would find oppressive (Hiring a dog walker because you don't want to step outside your front door while baby sleeps?).

I'm glad these conversations are going on, because I really do think our children are shortchanged if they aren't taught how to safely venture out on their own before they become adults. I know I would benefit, too, from letting the kids develop independence -- I really, really don't want to be one of those parents whose kids call me from college before deciding whether to take honors or to drop the boyfriend.