Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Feature - Free Range Kids

It's been months since I've done a "Friday Feature." But this blog is a good one, and I want all of you with kids or grandkids to go read some of it, so here's my "shout-out" about it:

I've been reading the Free Range Kids blog a lot, lately, because it has helped me to "let go" of my kids a bit more, and, more importantly, to let go of the irrational fear that previously accompanied any "letting go" that I did.

We are fed a steady news diet of scary stories about kids who are abducted, molested, and/or killed. We are also fed a steady advertising diet of new "safety" products that the advertisers tell us are absolutely essential to keep our children safe in our apparently completely unsafe world.

Parents have become afraid to let their kids out of sight. They have become "helicopter parents," monitoring every move their kids make, driving the kids everywhere they go, hanging around at every kid birthday party, interfering in every activity their kids engage in ... They buy their 8 year olds cell phones so the kids can call them... why, exactly? Presumably so they can call "if there's any trouble." But the only time the kids are even out of sight, typically, is at school... where, usually, cell phones are not allowed!

All this, despite the fact that, statistically, kids are safer now than at any prior time in history.

I remember, as a 10 year old child, riding my bike along a fairly major street, without a helmet or other safety gear, several miles to the school I attended. My parents were gone when I left the house, and still gone (at work or school) when I returned home. I was a "latch key" kid, I guess. But I didn't feel neglected so much as empowered.

My parents gave me enough money to ride the city bus to and from school each day, and some days I did, but I learned quickly that if I'd ride my bike, I could use the money for other things, like soda, ice cream, comic books, toys, movies, and more.

I remember after school and weekends and summers being allowed to roam free with my friends after school and again after dinner for hours at a time without so much as checking in, and the only rule was I had to be home by dark, which in Florida in the summer was 9 or 10 p.m.

Sometimes we pushed that a bit. It would be *really* dark... Sometimes I ignored my mom calling for me from the door of our house. I'd get yelled at when I got home, those nights, and a lecture about how she was worried about me, but it didn't stop her from letting me play with my friends other nights.

We'd ride our bikes after school and on weekends for miles and hours - without helmets, knee or elbow pads, or other safety gear.

I rode my bike a couple miles past my school to a farm on the outskirts of town to take horse riding lessons each week. By myself. And then rode home again.

We'd count our pennies and dimes, and when we had enough of them, we'd ride to the movie theatre and see "Rocky" or "The Bad News Bears" or whatever else was new and exciting.

We'd go to the local 7-11 and buy comics and candy, then hang out at one of our houses eating and reading.

I'd climb to the top of the best climbing tree in my yard - the one with lots of branches close together - and watch the people and cars pass by below, smiling because they didn't know I was there. I fell once, climbing down. Knocked the wind out of me and got a few bruises, but I didn't complain -- didn't want to be banned from tree-climbing.

I'd often go to friends' houses who had moved to other neighborhoods. Sometimes my parents would be so kind as to give me a ride; usually they told me to ride my bike -- it was only a couple of miles.

My friends and I would dig up bugs in the yard, and we learned the hard way that the beautiful large furry red ants were not actually ants but wasps.

We'd go for ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins and sample all 31 flavors before deciding which one to buy. I'm sure the employees hated us, but we had a blast.

We'd walk to the nearby park playground and play, for hours at a time, unaccompanied by any adults, on the merry-go-round, see-saws, and other play equipment that is now considered "too dangerous" and has been removed from most playgrounds across the country.

Schools had playgrounds back then, too - and they generally were not fenced in and locked off, but were open on weekends and summers for community kids to use.

We'd walk to the public swimming pool unaccompanied and swim for hours. If you passed the test (swim this far, tread water for this long...), you'd be issued a card that said you could go in the deep end of the pool even though your parents weren't there. You had to pass the test, because you wanted to jump off the high dive which, of course, was in the deep end of the pool.

All of this was when I lived in Florida. I moved from there the summer I turned 12.

When I was young, I flew often, alone, to visit grandparents, aunts / uncles, and other relatives. I started with non-stop flights and people meeting me at the gates, and worked my way up to changing planes and even changing airlines on occasion, and meeting folks at the baggage claim area.

When I was 17, I drove from Virginia to Alabama and back on my own in my 1965 Mustang (which I've written about previously, here), with nothing more than a map to help me navigate. This was before the days of cell phones and GPS systems. Fortunately, in the good ol' USA, you can go most anywhere just by following the signs on the interstate highways, as long as you know the major cities along the way.

These days, I worry that I'd be arrested for child neglect or endangerment if I let my kids do half the things I did as a kid.

I love the Free Range Kids blog, because it supports what I think is my better impulse, to allow my kids the same freedom to explore, to grow, and to develop self-confidence that I was given.

Too many kids these days reach adulthood without knowing how to navigate to their local convenience store alone, much less across the country by plane or auto. This needs to change. Kids are more competent than most people give them credit for.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not "anti-safety." I'm not advocating abandoning bike helmets or car seats. These are useful safety precautions that do not impede everyday life.

I am, however, increasingly frustrated with our society's infantilization of kids. Kids should be expected and allowed to develop appropriately, which includes developing self-reliance and the confidence to navigate, by themselves, in the world.

I recognize that some of the activities advocated on the Free Range Kids blog may be outside your comfort zone. I'm not advocating that you go straight from telling your 8 year old that she can't go outside without you to sending her across New York City on the subway unaccompanied. That would probably freak her out, anyway.

I am also not advocating that you send your child out to ride her bike in the street if you live on a major highway or in gangland central.

But for the vast majority of my readers who likely live somewhere in a decent urban, suburban, or even small town neighborhood, your kids will be fine if they ride their bike down the street, or walk the dog a few blocks without you. Try it! Once they get past feeling terrified by this new freedom, they will love the feeling that you trust them and that they can do it on their own.

I am, quite simply, advocating incremental change. Change toward allowing our children more freedom and responsibility, and trusting that they can handle it and will not suffer for it.

Read the blog. Teach your kids how to stay safe (hint: it's not about running from all strangers, but about knowing which neighbors you can trust and which ones are "creepy" and avoiding the "creepy" ones; it's not about staying on the sidewalk or in your yard at all times, but about learning how to cross the street safely).

Then trust your kids more and give them some well-deserved freedom.


Silliyak said...

My theory is that "fear" has become a saleable commodity. It's primarily sold on the "news" channels, but elsewhere also. We have so much, it's natural I suppose to fear losing it. As the Buddha said, suffering comes from attachment.

LegalMist said...

Sillyak -- I agree. I forgot to mention the gazillions of crime shows that market a steady diet of freakish crimes that must be solved and usually involve abductions, gruesome murders, and more -- crimes which are, in fact, pretty rare percentage wise, but have come to seem "common" because we see it so much on TV. And not that we don't want to be "attached" to our kids, but that we should be more "attached" to the idea of helping them grow to be competent and confident adults who can go out into the world without unrealistic fears, than we are to the idea of keeping them safe.

Alice said...

My children are still too young to run around in there own but I watched my mother raise me and then 15 years later raise my little sisters. it seems that my 15 year old sister cannot even stay home alone but I was allowed to roam the streets at age 8. I don't get it.t

Janie Junebug said...

We played softball in the backyard. We didn't need to join teams and have adults involved in every little thing we did. Now I see children in sports and I think the adults fight more than we kids ever did.


Janie "Lola"

Anonymous said...


Quilter422 said...

amen is right!

now i'm going to check out free range kids.