I Survived My Free-Range Childhood

Image Source: Julia Park Tracey
Image Source: Julia Park Tracey

I’m one of five kids. We grew up crammed into the back seat of the station wagon for cross-country trips — with no seat belts. We didn’t take multivitamins, we spent hours at the community pool without sunscreen every summer, and none of us wore helmets for anything. We also didn’t have annual physicals from our family doctor – I don’t think we even had a family doctor. When one of us got hurt, we only went to the hospital if we were seriously injured. If we got a cold we stayed home until we were better, lying on the couch watching game shows and soap operas. If we got the flu, we barfed into a saucepan. If we fell and smashed our lips, we got an ice cube wrapped in a washcloth to press against it. There’s an old saying about, “You have to eat a pound of dirt before you’re grown.” Apparently you also have to skin a lot of knees and step on a few nails, too.

The late 1960s and early ’70s were a different time for child-rearing. Our mothers did not breast-feed. We learned to walk wearing stiff white orthopedic shoes that were later bronzed and kept on the mantle. There were no car seats; moms held their babies in their laps, or used a car bed that fell off the seat if Dad stopped too fast. My mother washed our diapers because there were no disposables, and I know she gave us orange juice at two weeks of age, because Dr. Spock (the pediatrician, not the Vulcan) said it was the right thing to do.

Parents didn’t worry about kids running around; all parents felt free enough to scold you if you misbehaved.
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None of my siblings went to preschool — it didn’t exist. At 5 years old, I walked myself to kindergarten in the afternoon, three blocks away. Parents didn’t worry about kids running around; all parents felt free enough to scold you if you misbehaved. At the streets near the school, students on safety patrol would help you cross. But everywhere else you are on your own, and we learned to look both ways, cross with a light, and to walk on the white painted crosswalk strips in summer, because the paint was cooler than asphalt to bare feet. Yes, we ran around even downtown in bare feet.

Sometimes we stepped on a piece of glass or got a splinter, and then we knew the agony of lying on our parents’ double bed while Mom picked out the glass or splinter with tweezers and a needle. If someone got hurt, there was still a school nurse on hand, in a white uniform with a cap, and a jar full of tongue depressors. There was no such thing as calling 911; you could dial O (that’s O for operator, not zero) and she would connect you to the hospital or the fire department, but this was before paramedics came along for every ride. So people learned first aid at Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, at Camp Fire Girls or Sunday school, and practiced on their dolls or their pets or their friends, and knew how to set a splint that would hold you to you got to the doctor. But this kind of activity went out of style with the milkman and a tab at the butcher’s.

When I had music lessons at the rec center, most of the time I rode my bicycle to get there, and only rarely did parents show up to get involved. I don’t remember even once being driven to school until we moved to the country, and I was foolish enough to miss the bus; I got in enough trouble that I never missed the bus again. With real consequences, we learned how to do things right, how to feel dumb or disappointed and how to avoid those feelings by being on time or being prepared.

I feel that the leashes are way too short these days, and what we’ve gained in safety, we’ve lost in emotional independence …
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As I’ve raised my three daughters and two stepchildren, things have definitely changed. You have to wear a helmet for pretty much everything. You have to have a permission slip to go out the door, it seems. You have to have a special T-shirt or commit to fundraising, and be prepared to call 911 at any moment. Sometimes I wish my children had the same freedoms I had—to ride their bikes wherever they wanted, to run around after dark playing flashlight tag and kick the can, instead of worrying they’ll be kidnapped by strangers in vans. And of course I’m glad there are sensible safety rules for risky activities, because head trauma is no joke, and concussions and broken bones are better avoided. But I feel that the leashes are way too short these days, and what we’ve gained in safety, we’ve lost in emotional independence, in the value of letting our kids make mistakes and suffer the consequences, in real experiences outdoors without a parent or guardian hovering.

I will still call my childhood the “good old days” — because yes, there was plenty wrong in the world back then; but some things we got right. I think it’s okay for kids to taste freedom and to live a little more without supervision. I hope that by the time I have grandchildren some day, that kind of parenting will be in vogue again.

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Article Posted 4 years Ago

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