The Free-Range Kid Movement

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The Internet and various news outlets have been filled recently with stories of a number of now codified parental styles. There are

Tiger moms,

Snowplough parents,

Helicopter parents and

Free-range parents.

 

Perhaps you identify with one or more of these?  Or, are they are as unfamiliar to you as they were to me?
[box] When I was a new mom, I turned to the books for answers. John Bowlby, Lee Salk (Jonas’ brother), Selma Fraiberg, and Benjamen Spock guided me during those years. I still recall Fraiberg’s story in her book The Magic Years, of letting your four-year-old take apart the vacuum cleaner if he (or she I’m sure she’d add today) was curious about how it worked. That was the kind of mother I wanted to be.

But I’ve also not forgotten a paragraph in another book that spoke about how “today’s parents” (the early 1970s) suffered a loss of confidence, comparing them unfavorably to “those parents who took their kids out behind the wood shed,” because at least they “did so with confidence.” That resonated with me for, as a young mother, I was determined to do right by my sons, but I was often unsure what that might be. The books gave me confidence. In them I learned that children have a way of figuring things out for themselves if left to their own devices. They recommended hiding out in the bathroom, if needed, just to keep from getting pulling into their squables. The books assured me that children are resilient. [/box]

 

 

It occured to me that the main difference in these various “styles” comes down to how the parents assess risk.

 

 

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It was easy to note the differences in child-rearing pratices when I was in Kazakhstan. No bedtimes, no special beds, no diapers, no parental hovering that I could see. And, the children were happy, heathy, compasionate, independent, clever, and content.  What more does a parent want in the end, really?

While in Kazakhstan, I couldn’t help but compare both the bedtimes I set for my sons (based on age, when they had to get up in the morning, and how tired I was) and the messages I told myself about why I did it that way (Children need nine hours of sleep each night. Sleep is how you stay healthy and when you grow. And that very real message that if my boys didn’t get upstairs and go to sleep I was going to . . .  “Don’t make me come up there,” I remember yelling on more than a few occassions.

 

Last month I wrote about the breastfeeding revolution, first on January 28 and again on February 11. I urge you to take a look, if you missed either of them. They were fun  posts to write. Well, the February one was fun.
Maybe by the time I’m done, this one will be fun too.  Let’s hope.

 

Here’s the headline that caught my eye:

 

Parents investigated for neglect after letting kids
walk home alone

 

Perhaps you saw it too?  It was in the January 6 online edition of the Washington Post.  Here’s the link to the accompanying article by Donna St. George, with a photo by Jorge Ribas (In this case it’s a video).

 

In short, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv let their children walk home from a park a mile from their home in Silver Spring, Maryland. A passerby saw the children, aged 10 and six, and called police. Before the day was out, Chidren’s Services were involved and the Meitivs, it turned out, were liable for criminal neglect.  [MD Family Law 5-706]

Eventually, the parents would be held “responsible for unsubstantiated child neglect.”  I know; I’m confused by that too.

 

Let’s bring this closer to home.

My grandchildren live about a mile from the local elementary school they’ve all attended since Mikah, the oldest, was in second grade.  Kendall, the youngest, is now in second grade and her dad walks her to school and home again every day, as he’s done since the girls were in day care and it was just Mikah getting to the building on time.

And, up until my research for this blog, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a scary world out there, I told myself. No telling what might happen.

 

Never mind that I walked to school by myself starting in kindergarten.  Over a mile, maybe two, many traffic lights in the city of nearly 100,000.  One of my earliest memories is walking a boy named Gary home from school only to discover his house was on the opposite side of town.  I left him at his house and walked back to mine only to find my mom hanging out the laundry, unaware I was even late.  This was in Kindergarten.

In 1953.

Things have changed, I told myself.

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Or have they?

Listen to what Petula Dvorak wrote for a January 15 column for the same Washington Post.

  • Since 1993, the number of children younger than 14 who are murdered is down by 36 percent. Among children ages 14 to 17, murders are down 60 percent.
  • Fewer than 1 percent of missing children are abducted by strangers or even slight acquaintances, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. [Note: according to the Polly Klaas Foundation’s National Child Kidnapping website, this is about 100 each year, nationwide.]

“The criminalization of childhood independence is a cultural shift as significant as cellphones. And it’s insanity,” she writes. “From across the nation, stories of missing children are delivered to the palms of our hands every day. In the old days, it seemed so much safer because the tragic stories were largely restricted to hometown papers and local newscasts.”

Compare those statistics to this one:

  • About 300 children a day are injured in car accidents. An average of three kids a day are killed while riding in a car.

 

Perhaps that’s why the news doesn’t report these. They are so common, they no longer constitute “news.”

 

So, back to the Meditievs. It turns out they are part of a collection of parents who have a website and (as the Free Range Kids website declares) are earnestly and eagerly:

Fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.

How we measure risk is surely cultural, and hence of particular interest to me. I’m thinking of the eskimos children given sharp knives at the age our kids are still getting stuffed animals (aged three, if you were wondering). No one accuses Eskimo parents of neglect.

For some additional insights into this movement, read the recent New York Times op-ed piece, The Case for Free-Range Parenting.

 

How about you? Thinking back to how you were raised, were you a free range kid?  Were your own kids?  How about your grandchildren?  

12 Responses

  1. Anonymous
    | Reply

    Bravo, Janet Givens​, for this blog!! We lament our kids staying inside tethered to their electronic devices. We say, “Go outside and play!”, remembering our own childhoods. But that “play” better not be more than 10′ from the door to their house. We share the blame, with those electronic devices, for robbing our kids of a robust, meaningful childhood.

    P.S. I shared this blog and my comment on my FB page.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Frank. Curious that you showed up as “anonymous.” Any idea why or how? I thank you for the FB post, too. Though I was hoping this particular blog would just fade away. Hadn’t been able to get back to it for final edits. Oh well.

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I was a free-range kid and so were my children, now in their forties, who ran all over the woods about a block away from our house. Fear began with the abduction of the Walsh child and has ramped up every since. The Meitiv family story you cite seems absurd by any standard. Great research, Janet.

    You spoke of child-rearing methods. One of the most effective things I did was never get involved with my children’s squabbles. When Crista or Joel came with a “he said-she said” story, my stock answer: I wasn’t there when it happened. Figure it out yourselves. It worked every time.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian, Well, I guess I should be happy that even my accidental blogs get quick Comments. Oh well; I’m still practicing Letting Go. I loved your story of using “I wasn’t there..” with your kids. For me, I sent them to their rooms to write out what had happened. I still have a few of those stories. I remember one, where Jon (the younger) wrote out what happened, then just ended it with, “And I lost.”

  3. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I wandered all around when I was a child, and as a teen, too. Looking back though as an adult, I realize that my mom had no idea where I was much of the time, and if something had happened to me, no one would even know where to look. I think it’s good I was a good kid. 🙂

    My kids were not free range, but I’ve tried not to be a helicopter parent. One of my friends was telling me how she talks to her son’s college adviser to help him pick his courses. I can’t imagine that!

    In a conversation last week, I said to someone that horrible things have always happened. I’ve seen enough in my research. But part of it now, is that we hear about everything right away. It’s reported online immediately–so danger seems ever present. At the same time, there were reports of a attempted child snatching in my niece’s neighborhood. The suspect was seen in different areas, and the police and schools gave warnings. It’s hard to ignore something like that and send your child off to walk to school alone.
    OK. I’ll stop now. 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes indeed, Merill, I too think part of the problem is the News: the way it’s delivered and the 24/7 quantity that we’re exposed to. As I read your post I remembered how far I could get on my bike as a kid of 12 and 13. I was a latch-key kid through high school, but really never thought anything of it. I too was a “good kid.” I’ve tried to make up for lost time as an adult. 🙂

  4. Sharon Lippincott
    | Reply

    Can you see me jumping up and down with steam coming out my ears IN DEFENSE OF FREE-RANGE KIDS AND PARENTING!!? This is a platform I’m so onto. I grew up that way. I raised my kids that way in the seventies. My daughter’s neighborhood in Austin has declared the boundaries of a quasi-free-range zone so their kids can leave their yards. That’s brave. Not far from them and not long ago a mother was visited by authorities when her seven-year-old son was 50 feet down the road and across the street “unsupervised”, though she could see him out the window.

    What can we do? March on state capitols? We need a Declaration of Independence! Keeping kids inside for “safety” is compromising bodies and brains.

    I better quit now. Thanks for a great, inciteful post.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Sharon, Well, it was an inciteful post. Imagine how much hotter it might ahve been had I been on top of it. Oh well. I guess no one will accuse me of being a “helicopter blogger.”

      When my older son was three, I taught him to cross the street. It was a development street, but there were still speeders and two kids had been killed on thsoe streets before we moved it. Dave was a hard one to keep down, so I figured it’d be better if he knew where to look (and THAT to look) before he stepped off the lawn. My neighbors gave me a lot of grief over that, but I still hold to that stance. Thanks for weighing in.

  5. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    Yup, i was most definitely a free range kid. Growing up in the African bush there wasn’t much alternative. My parents (Dad was a colonial soldier) decided they didn’t want me growing up as a camp brat, so instead of the military school on camp, I attended a mission school a few miles north of Lusaka. It was lessons in the morning and the wide open bush as my playground in the afternoon, armed from the age of three and a half with a sharp knife, which I kept whetted on a stone, and a catapult or bow and arrow. I still have one f the sharp iron arrowheads on my desk as I write this.
    The only time restrictions came i was when it came to guns. As a professional user of guns, my Dad had very clear views about their use and made sure to teach me and my brother how to handle them safely and when to refrain from shooting.Apart from that it was ‘Go out and explore. Find out how the world works, and enjoy yourself. Just don’t do anything that will be to someone else’s detriment.’
    It was a brilliant way to grow up.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Ian, When I first began to put this together, I had hoped you’d weigh in. So, thanks. I’d love to read a memoir of yours of your growing up years. Any thoughts?

  6. […] few get a whole blog post about them (see Breastfeeding six year olds (from February, 2015) or the Free-Range Kids movement (from May, […]

  7. […] Cultural differences in our own backyard?  I enjoyed writing those posts on different parenting styles: breast feeding six year olds and free-range parents. […]

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