Thursday, May 01, 2008

Free Children

(No, the title of this post is not an advertisement offering up my children for free, but some days I would seriously entertain some offers!)

When I was a kid:

  • We used to run all over our neighborhood, in and out of neighbors' houses, for hours at a time and my mom had only a general idea of where we might be.
  • One of our houses (we moved so much) was set on 4 acres of land. Lacking close neighbors, we'd leave the house after breakfast, wander the woods and creeks, climb trees, play with wildlife (turtles and crawdads and worms and salamanders), build forts, and have adventures. Sometimes we'd return home for lunch, but we usually brought some snacks and ate lunch in the wild apple trees and drank creek water when we got thirsty.
  • I'd ride my bike for miles and no one knew where I was.
  • I'd ride my bike for miles with my brother and sister and we'd go to the community pool for hours and hours.
  • When we rode buses to school, we'd walk home from the bus stop every day all by ourselves.
  • When we rode bikes to school, we'd ride a couple of miles or more. Sometimes, we'd fall.
  • My parents let us use real tools and scrap wood to build structures that might stand on their own if it wasn't windy that day. They let us go inside them, too.
I did all of these things before I was 13 and most of them before I was 9. Nobody reported my parents for child abuse or neglect.

I struggle with how to give my kids the same level of freedom, since things really are different than they were, sigh, in the olden days. Now, my eldest would grow the umbilical back if he could, so as always to have a secure tether to my personal body and therefore know where I was at all times. So that adds to my challenge. But I'm finding ways to help him be free and learn how to step away from me, too. For instance, he recently took a walk in our neighborhood all by himself. Just to the culdesac and back, but still. He was alone and he was free.

Now, six year olds in my neighborhood are rarely spied outside of an adult's shadow. All the moms meet their kids at the bus stop, every single day (although that seems to stop at about the 6th grade). Not only that, but the bus stops at every intersection in the neighborhood, which boggles my mind--the buses I rode always stopped at the main intersection in the neighborhood, or at the end of one of the main streets, and dumped everyone off all at once. If you lived at the other end of the street, well, too bad for you. (And yes, I trudged through the snow from the bus stop, but not barefoot. I do realize how I'm sounding here!)

Anyway, I recently discovered a new blog, Free Range Kids, that explores some of the ways in which we can help our children be free!

At Free Range, we believe in safe kids. We believe in helmets, car seats and safety belts. We do NOT believe that every time school age children go outside, they need a security detail. Most of us grew up Free Range and lived to tell the tale. Our kids deserve no less.

YES! Do you know what this parent allowed her 9 year old to do? Get home on the subway all by himself! And they both survived to tell the tale. Awesome.

It's definitely time that parents recognize the difference between being safe and, you know, lock down, don't you think? Any thoughts?


Monica said...

I agree. You mention the possibility of government involvement... any more thoughts on that? What i mean is, how much do you think this whole helicopter parenting philosophy is a result of parents being prosecuted vs. simply a cultural change?

Diana Hsieh said...

Ah, remember those glorious days when a child could be left in the car to entertain him/herself, instead of being dragged into the store with the parent!

I'm so grateful for the freedom of movement that I had as a child. It's sad to me that children today miss out on that.

Honestly, I think that half of good parenting is benign neglect, so that kids learn to meet their own needs in life. In 7th grade, I realized that if I wanted clean clothes, I'd have to start doing my own laundry. And so I did. I won't even mention the embarrassing lunches that my mother used to pack in elementary school -- still a periodic topic of conversation in the family -- that inspired me to pack my own lunches as soon as I was able to do so. Once you've eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a hot dog bun, it's really worth the effort to pack your own lunch!

Monica said...

Diana, that's hilarious. I agree entirely.

I had a childhood like you two did as well. In the summertime I'd spend hours outside -- my mom refused to let me in the house for more than a few hours per day in the summer. I roamed the neighborhood on bike and foot from the age of 7 onward. I was even buying all my own clothes at the age of 16.

Today, I consider that my mother was pretty protective in other ways. I'm very surprised she allowed me this much freedom because I was her only child. She would have this whistle she would use to call me in for dinner (yes the image is awful, I'm sure) but most of the time I was too far away to hear it. Sometimes miles away. This was a very secluded area, but still... I often wonder to myself: if I had a child, would I be so permissive as she was? I doubt it. Has it really gotten more dangerous, or are the dangers more publicized? I don't know.

Rational Jenn said...

"Benign neglect." I like that. It's related in principle somewhat to Maria Montessori's idea about not interrupting children while they are working, I think. I believe my husband and I do that--we make sure they are reasonably safe and then stay out of their way until we're needed. My kids are still pretty young, so they need us quite frequently, but they will go outside for hours in our fenced-in backyard and just do stuff. Sometimes they use real tools. :o)

I think that parents should step back and gradually let/encourage the kid to take over responsibilities or else they'll find themselves making their kids' lunches (among other things) when the kids could and should be handling those jobs themselves. Could PB&J on a hot dog bun be considered a form of "encouragement?" That is a funny story, although I'm sure it was humiliating at the time!

My parents were controlling in other ways, like Monica's. For example, I'm sure no other 15 year old ever had a "bed time." (I had to FIGHT for the ability to be responsible for going to sleep and getting myself up for school--and I was the super-responsible type.) But they never seemed to worry too much about us being outside and around the neighborhood--I'll have to ask my mom about what age we started doing that. 5 or 6 I'm sure.

And as for not dragging them into stores against their wills--give me the olden days! I'd probably wait until they are older, but I plan to give that a try, for my own sanity--although I've had friends who've been questioned by well-meaning? nosy? paranoid? people for doing similar things.

I think the dangers are over-publicized rather than more prevalent. And kids do have some freedom in my neighborhood, but they are older. There's a delay--the 8 and 9 year olds are doing the things I did when I was 5 or 6.

C. August said...

"I think the dangers are over-publicized rather than more prevalent. And kids do have some freedom in my neighborhood, but they are older. There's a delay--the 8 and 9 year olds are doing the things I did when I was 5 or 6."

I agree completely. As a chemistry teacher once said "This is what we used to do before mercury was toxic." Random, I know, but he meant that people went on about their lives just fine before everything suddenly had to be "SAFE!"

I too had incredible freedom to roam, ride bikes all day, all over. My willingness to take advantage of my freedom grew as I grew older, so I sometimes wonder if I'm just forgetting more restrictive rules that I had when I was 6 or 8 or 12. I have a terrible memory for that stuff. Mostly, I have the idyllic, blindingly bright happy memory of summertime exploration.

But when I translate my experience to my own children, even with full awareness of the hysteria of over-publicized dangers, I still get a pit in my stomach thinking of letting my little ones free in the neighborhood. Of course they're 4.5 and 2.5, so I have plenty of time to grow up as a parent. :-)

LB said...

My husband and I often talk about the “orphan advantage” which is similar to “benign neglect” in that it kids get to make their own mistakes. Very frequently in children’s books, the kid who really rises to the level of hero has no parents. Is this just an easy way to make the kid seem more heroic, overcoming the adversity of being an orphan, or more parenting lesson than plot devise? It is a constant struggle to give them the best guidance you can and know when to get out of their way.

I mostly lament the idea of the old neighborhood - everyone knew whose house was safe, whose was filled with crazies, and when the street lights came on it was time to go home before your mother came looking for you and really embarrassed you.

The freedom to roam about a neighborhood, mostly unwatched, offers kids many opportunities: the ability to figure out who you are (by judging yourself in different situations), what you like (by judging others), and what you are made of (by constantly assessing risk). These skills seem to come earlier to those who have been given the freedom to figure it all out on their own – like how we seem to have all grown up, more or less.

The freedom to make mistakes is what I wanted to give my children but am not always so good at it. Balancing this freedom with the concern of permanent damage keeps the job of parenting interesting.

Regarding helicopter parents – this seems more of an issue of entitlement. These parents become their children’s advocate against institutions in which the parents see their children as not otherwise getting their “fair share”. I think it’s a direct result from the children never having been able to fend for themselves under any circumstances and the parents thinking it’s their job to hand their children the world. No benign neglect here, just toxic overindulgence.

My older kids, 14 and 20 have done their own laundry for a while, can cook dinner, and effortlessly make phone calls on their own behalf (not to friends, but to places to get information – a real skill which is often over overlooked, see helicopter parents above). My 9 year old was making her own lunch at the age of 4 (thanks Maria Montessori) and thanks to the patience and bravery of my husband, now has better knife skills than I do. (I don't watch.)

I'd like to think of Atticus Finch as my parenting role model, but you just can't count on Boo Radley showing up in time.

Monica said...

I sent my mom (who is now 53) your post, Jenn, and she replied:

"Boy, I totally agree. That is great. I can remember being gone for the day on week-ends when I was a kid. We would take some snacks and go up to the second bridge back into the woods to a favorite spot on the water and play all day in the water, etc. We had so much find we didn't want to come home at night when it got dark. And I was under 10 years old doing all this. And you know the story when I took 2 friends and we rode our bikes 10 miles into Rome to my grandmother's house on the back roads. Now, that was pushing it too far, Dad said. I was only 8 or 9 and Grandma called him when we got there. Sad to say my bike was in the cellar for the rest of the summer. A lot of good memories!"

Rational Jenn said...

C--I have also wondered if my memory is just hazy, but I know that by the time I was 8 or 9, and I can place that pretty definitely based on the places I lived, I was out and about for hours at a time, reporting in to my mom only for snacks.

LB--You're right--the kids in the most interesting books usually independent of adults--reminds me of a story of two girls playing a game and one of them says to the other "First, we've got to get rid of the parents." Then they "kill" off their imaginary parents in order to have more fun.

I also liked these two things you wrote:

It is a constant struggle to give them the best guidance you can and know when to get out of their way.


The freedom to make mistakes is what I wanted to give my children but am not always so good at it. Balancing this freedom with the concern of permanent damage keeps the job of parenting interesting.

To which I can only say YES and YES! It's hard to stop myself from preventing an impending disaster, but I am often successful if I can see that no permanent scars will result (physical or emotional). Hard to make those split-second decisions though. Parenting is hardly ever boring!

Glad your mom liked it, Monica! Maybe I should send this to my parents. I'd be interested in what they have to say.

Monica said...

Maybe you should. I'd be interested in their reaction. But I wouldn't be surprised if you get some comments like "With all the weirdos out there today...." That's what my grandfather says every time I travel in the car alone, and I'm an adult -- and he used to let my mom do lots of things when she was a kid. *sigh*

Dan Edge said...


I'm happy to report that I experienced a similar freedom in childhood, and I hope to provide the same to my children.

I spent my elementary and middle school years in two different houses, both of which had 5-acre lots, complete with woods, streams, and open grassland. My grandparents helped raise us, and they had spent most of their lives on a 50-acre farm in Nowheresville, Texas.

My grandparents spent the summer days with us while my mother worked. By the time we were six, we were allowed free reign on the property as long as we checked in from time to time. We would climb trees, catch crawdads in the creek, and run from our neighbor's mean Dobermans. One time we set fire to the back yard. We got in serious trouble for that, but it was all good fun :)

Despite all the minor trouble we would get into, I never broke a bone or seriously hurt myself.

--Dan Edge

Cheerwino said...

Good post! My parents used to send my brother and me outside, we were maybe 3 and 8. "Just go outside and play!" We were told to "watch out for 'hippies,' who actually did wander by occasionally since we lived on a government facility (hard to explain). And, I was told not to go near the old 'whale' buried in the field. Later, I learned this was actually a well. I grew up in the South, so these sound similar. :-)

Later, we moved near grandparents where the main rules were to avoid the field with the bull and to not shoot any animals I wasn't going to skin and eat myself.


Bill Brown said...

I think the key to a lot of what's being lauded is not doing stuff by themselves but doing things without parents around. I think it would be ludicrous to allow your child to be out and about on his own, as in by himself. There is a very legitimate truth behind "safety in numbers."

The subway child would have learned the same independence if he had made his city-wide journey with his friends. That he came back is incidental; a child alone on a subway is defenseless. What if he hadn't come back and was lost in NYC? Would the mother be singing the praises of Free Children? Or would she be rightly wracked with guilt?

Moreover, a lot of the things I've heard about take place in rural areas where the population density makes crimes against children statistically less likely.

Bill Brown said...

This seems relevant: 5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do

Monica said...

Bill -- I think one has to put the age of the child into the equation. (However, I was babysitting newborns and toddlers -- alone -- at age 12.)

Come to think of it, I did not do many of the outdoor activities myself, except for swimming alone as a young teen. (But at that time, I was 2-3 years away from becoming a lifeguard.) You're correct -- there is safety in numbers when pursuing dangerous stuff in the country -- not only from a standpoint of getting physically injured, but safety from weirdos. However, I think this actually applies less to the city and more to the country.

I'm really not sure that on subways a child is "defenseless." And how would extra kids help in that situation? I'd need more data to come to that conclusion, I think. Most kids don't get kidnapped in cities, to my recollection. If someone tries to kidnap a kid on a subway, there are hordes of people around. Is there much precedence for this? I don't know. Recalling all the news items, it seems that kids usually get kidnapped while biking not far from their home in a rural area, or playing in their suburban yard. Places where there are *fewer* people around and someone can just snatch a kid at the right moment.

Bill Brown said...

I'm no subway expert, but my impression is that it depends on the route, time of day, and car. The number of people is not evenly distributed and I'd imagine that some cars are less populated than others.

The point about a group being safer on a subway is that it's a less attractive target. If a kidnapper or ne'er-do-well had to choose between silencing one child or silencing two or more, he'd obviously pick the single child. It's much easier to convince onlookers or witnesses that the one child is his and that he's just throwing a fit. With multiple kids screaming, he's exposed.

My impression is that kidnapping is a crime of opportunity (and a crime of passion in the case of custody issues).

I'm not arguing that children need to be coddled. I was riding buses through downtown Phoenix without my parents' knowledge of where I was or where I was going at 10. But I think they were supremely neglectful in allowing it and I would never allow any of my children to do that.

Rational Jenn said...

Bill---thanks for stopping by (and apologies for the late reply). You bring up some good points--and I've seen that video and been meaning to write about it since forever. I agree with much of what it contains.

I don't think a 9 year old is necessarily and completely defenseless on the subway--depends on the context. My understanding is that this kid is a city kid and had been on this particular journey a whole bunch of times with his mom. She didn't let him figure out a brand new route home in the middle of the night on a particularly unsafe subway stop. And she gave him tools to use if he needed help (money, etc. but also I imagine the common sense gained from having experienced that ride before). MY 9 year old (when I have one) might be helpless on the subway--we're suburbanites. But her kid and their situation is different.

I do also think that kids need time on their own--away from their parents. That's not to say that I don't want to know where my kid is and that I wouldn't surreptitiously check up on them, but to the extent that the child wants it, it's safe, they have been taught how to keep themselves safe and what to do in an emergency, I think Time Away from mom and dad can be beneficial, can encourage independence.

And we're starting small--I can't really say what a 9 or 10 year old *should* be doing on their own, since I haven't gotten there yet. My oldest is only 6 and he can walk to the culdesac and back by himself. It's a start. I really wouldn't be comfortable allowing him to go in and out of people's homes like I used to do until he knows our phone number, when and how to use an Epipen (for his allergy), etc.

We talk about how to keep safe--I can't recommend the book Protecting the Gift enough. Talks about who to ask for help if they're lost (NOT a security guard) and how to scream and scream if someone grabs them (and what to scream) and how to talk to kids about being safe. A child alone is probably more vulnerable than a whole group of kids, but a child well-taught and knowledgeable is not defenseless.

This is a tome of a comment--but I just wanted to say that I hear what you're saying, but that kids need freedom at some point. It's tricky to balance and I'm by no means an expert, since we are just beginning.

Monica said...

Hey Jenn -- how are you dealing with this four years on? :)