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Raising Free-Range Kids Might Just Get You … Arrested

122413653The latest episode of the new NPR podcast Invisibilia begins with an interesting anecdote. A social scientist went to a small town in the late 70s, and (with the families’ permission, of course) asked the towns’ children where they liked to play on their own, out from under the watchful eye of adults. He made a map of how far the kids ranged, and he captured field recordings of the children playing without adult supervision, research that’s common today but at the time was cutting edge. He recently returned to find out how the offspring of those same kids play when they are by themselves, and he discovered something interesting. The kids today rarely went farther afield than their own yards without a grown-up, while the kids in the 70s, by the age of 10, would venture nearly everywhere within the town limits, into the woods, and often beyond.

What caused the change?

Fear.

To paraphrase one father, he wouldn’t let his kids roam where he himself had been allowed to roam because the world is just such a scary place these days. He wouldn’t be able to relax if he didn’t know where his kids were at all times.

“How have we gotten so crazy that what was just a normal childhood a generation ago is considered radical,” Maryland mother and climate-science consultant Danielle Meitiv recently asked The Washington Post, in a separate story. Last month, Meitiv and her husband allowed their ten-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to walk together unaccompanied by adults from a park on a Saturday afternoon, along a busy street, about a mile to their home. The kids never made it. Police picked them up about halfway there, after receiving calls by concerned adults. The parents are now facing an investigation by Child Services for neglect.

The Meitivs believe in free-range parenting, an alternative to helicopter or attachment parenting that proposes children need to learn self-reliance by testing limits and making choices without adults hovering over their every move. They had trained their kids for the long walk with a series of shorter practice walks, and the kids reported being confident and prepared to go out own their own. Though the family is white and live in one of the most affluent counties in the US, their story is reminiscent of Debra Harrell‘s, the 46-year-old black single mother from South Carolina who last summer briefly lost custody of her nine-year-old daughter and was arrested after Harrell allowed the girl to play unattended at a playground while she worked her shift at McDonald’s. The girl had a phone, and the park was a popular place, with about 40 kids there at any given time, yet letting her play there without an adult was deemed neglectful by the authorities.

I faced this conundrum on a much smaller level last week, when both my five-year-old son and I were laid low by the flu. I needed to pick up my son’s prescription from the pharmacy, but after returning from the doctor’s office he had crashed on the couch, staring at the television in a sick daze. My wife was working late, and I worried the pharmacy would close before she could get the medicine, and so I thought I’d leave him to pick up the antibiotics myself. The trip only would have taken about ten minutes, and I knew he’d do nothing but watch TV, yet I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It just didn’t feel safe. (Fortunately, the pharmacy ended up having later hours than I expected, so it wasn’t an issue.)

The thing is, the world is actually not a scary place, at least not if you go by the numbers. Federal statistics say our nation’s violent crime rates are about what they were in the late 1960’s, a dramatic decline from their peak in 1991. What’s changed, of course, is the media and our awareness of the crimes that do occur. We are not scared of imaginary monsters, no, we know all too well the horrific damage other human beings can inflict on one another. We’ve seen young men with guns storm elementary schools, or run rampant across college campuses, shooting unarmed and unsuspecting innocents. We watched the Boston marathon turn from a scene of triumph into one of tragedy, as we watched the Twin Towers come down on 9/11. We hear all too often about teachers and religious leaders sexually molesting their charges, or of admired celebrities and sports stars abusing or assaulting women. These images have, in a way, traumatized us. You can’t feed your head these kinds of horrors and not get tarnished by anxiety and terror yourself.

For example, after watching nonstop coverage of a gunman opening fire and killing 12 people during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, my father told me he was unable to relax enough to enjoy seeing the movie in the theater. We’re all in that situation. A sketchy looking stranger at the playground, a car moving haphazardly down the street, a parade of police cars speeding across the Brooklyn Bridge, national guardsmen toting assault rifles in Grand Central Terminal, sometimes all I see is threat. I’m in a state of disaster preparedness, waiting for the next tragedy, wondering when it might be my bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or my son’s.

Some parents are saying enough is enough. In the wake of the Meitiv’s case, a group called the Maryland Coalition to Empower Kids formed, seeking to refocus Child Protective Services on cases of real abuse and neglect and not free-range parenting. The founder, Russell Max Simon, told The Washington Post that his biggest fear when letting his ten and eight-year-old play alone at the playground two blocks from their house is that someone will call the cops on them.

I am certainly thinking deeply about the role fear plays in my parenting decisions. I am far from a helicopter parent, but I’m not exactly a free-range parent either. Every parent is going to come down at their own point in the spectrum based on their knowledge of their child and their area. The important thing, though, is that you decide how many of your fears are realistic and how many are irrational, or out of your control. I’ve already written about how I don’t want my son going to school in a climate of disaster preparation and worry, nor do I want him growing up in a house where those terribly chilly feelings make up an unnecessarily large part of the emotional climate, or where he learns to view the world as a monstrous, scary place.

Because that’s ultimately what we’re talking about here. Parents are, as they always have been, the creators of their young children’s reality, and I fret the message we’re sending to our children is that the world is a place to hide from rather than explore, one in which they’re entitled to not just supervision but help 24/7. Just this afternoon my kindergartener told me he thought it would be so cool if every student in the class had his or her own teacher. I said that sounded really nice, but it also wasn’t quite the point of school, which is to train and practice for one day being an independent adult. “And that means being able to be one part of a bigger classroom, and not having a teacher giving you one-on-one attention all the time.”

In middle school, I biked four miles from home on busy roads to hang out with my best friends during the summer. Starting around the age of 9, I stayed home alone with my brother after school. Before that, I watched him for short periods of time while my parents ran errands. Sometimes, after they put us to bed, they’d pop over to our neighbor’s house for drinks. They worried, but not about my brother and I being alone for a little while. And those times away from adults were special times, full of imaginative play, and jokes, and reading books, and making silly fart noises. My son, like every child in America, deserves a childhood like the one I had, free, within the bounds of common-sense, of course, to roam and play without fear, independent from his parents. The expectation that an adult needs to be hovering over a child at all times has got to stop. There should be no shame, and certainly no legal charges, brought against parents who have the wisdom to let their kids be kids.

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