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freedom

Folks — Something to ponder on a Sunday:
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Dear Free-Range Kids: As a Free-Range parent living in England, I look to classic children’s literature for inspiration and confidence about giving my sons the freedom to be children, exploring and having adventures on their own.  I thought I would pass along a suggestion to other Free-Range parents and hope to get new ideas in return.  The Swallows and Amazons books, by Arthur Ransome, were favorites of mine as a child.  Written in the early 1930s, the language is dated in places, but the children seem surprisingly modern and I bet today’s kids would love them, too (my sons are still too young).  I re-read the series this summer, this time paying more attention to the wise adults as role models!  The series is appropriate for ages 8+ (but I read them as a teen).

What books do other free-range parents and their kids enjoy?

Robin Fawcett

woodville

This kid does not look particularly Free-Range, but she IS copyright-free. (Painting by Richard Caton Woodville, who’s great. Just discovered him!)

Hi Readers! Christine Gross-Loh’s articles on HuffPo have been generating a lot of attention — with reason. She’s great! Thanks to her global perspective, she can attest that the worry and hovering so common in America represent a distinct and unusual type of parenting, not just the “instinct” many here feel it is. Meantime, she’s is a mom of four and author of the just published book, Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us. Visit her at www.christinegrossloh.com! -L.

KIDS ARE MORE COMPETENT THAN AMERICAN PARENTS BELIEVE by Christine Gross-Loh

When our family first moved overseas to Japan, I was stunned to see so many little kids out on their own. The first time I saw a six year old getting on a train by herself, I actually thought this was negligent parenting. (It’s understandable: I had come straight from America, where this kind of thing was totally unthinkable.)

But it didn’t take long for our kids to become used to a freedom they had never imagined being able to experience. Of course, for me there were still jarring moments that reminded me that I’d come from a totally different world – like the time my friend told me she was having her son take the bus to a new location, kind of far away, for soccer practice. Instead of doing what I assumed she would — writing down the directions for him and pressing the correct change into his hand – all she did was hand him a transit map.

When we returned to the US five years later, our kids – who became used to walking a mile to school from the time they were in first grade, and going to the park any time they wanted to meet up with friends – were confused by a culture that kept giving children so many messages that not only are they not capable, they are fragile and must be bolstered constantly. We kept wondering: why did that father over there praise his toddler son for riding a merry go round (“Good riding!”)? Why did those grandparents over there lavishly praise their little granddaughter for….drinking water? Why did that eight year old not know how to butter his own bread because he wasn’t “allowed to use a knife?”

Soon after my return, an American college professor told me how she showed her students some photos of a recent trip to Japan she’d taken. One photo was of a group of first graders, all wearing the same yellow hats that all first graders do there when commuting to school in Japan. The yellow hats are a signal to the community around them: “Look out for us.” But the professor’s college students – products of a culture that had taught them to be suspicious — gasped. “Here in the U.S., those hats would make those kids a target!”

It’s obvious we’re experiencing an erosion of trust: in what our kids can do and in our wider community.  Fear instead of trust prevails even though statistics show so many of our fears about safety are overblown, and research shows us that the greatest safety protection we can give children is to give them practice in exercising their judgment and competence. Children in many countries are encouraged to hone this competence because it’s considered such an essential way to raise kids who can keep themselves safe.

This is what’s most ironic: although we often think of so many other nations as less free than our own, and we love the idea of raising independent, free kids, somehow we’ve gotten it backwards: our children are the ones who seem to have the least freedom and least capability, all in the name of protecting them. Change won’t come overnight, but in the meantime we can ask ourselves, are there small steps we can take, empowered by the knowledge that there is surely a child somewhere, somewhere in the world who is doing these things too?

Small steps like these:

-Letting a five year old child ride a bike around the neighborhood by himself

-Letting an eight year old take some pocket change and go into a store to buy herself a treat (one that she chooses)

-Biting your tongue when you automatically start to say “be careful” or “good job.”

-Teaching your four year old how to use a knife and a cuttingboard

-Encouraging a preschooler to climb a tree

It’s eye-opening to hear what other parents do to give their children a more Free-Range childhood. What other suggestions do you have? – Christine

Japanese kids in their yellow hats. Photo from Fodor’s Travel Guides.

Readers — Like the rest of you, I am shaken by the story of the three young women held hostage in Cleveland for years. Like you, I’m guessing, this brings up other stories — of Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard.  I hope you will understand I am not dishonoring their trauma by trying to keep it in perspective.

A story like this makes many parents re-think any freedom for their kids. That’s because we immediately feel for the prisoners — which is as it should be — but also because it will be used as a reference point  whenever at least some parents think, “Can I let my child go outside unaccompanied?”

That’s in part because we have been trained to think that way: That any horrible thing that happens to any child anywhere is immediately likely to happen to every child everywhere. I am betting that some media outlets are preparing pieces now on how to keep your child from getting kidnapped and held captive for 10 years with two other hostages.

The other day I asked for your stories that begin,  “Nothing bad happened when my kid…”  My reason was to try to add stories to the other side of the news. The non-news side, as it were.  While something terrible happened to these three, we will never hear of the tens of millions of young people who go about their business and all’s well.  The news, by definition, is rare.

Tim Gill of Rethinking Childhood  has a rule that I like, to help parents stay sane when confronted (sometimes over and over) with horrific news:

Realize that you can feel sympathy with people who have suffered a terrible loss, without forever having to see the world through their eyes.

Good luck to us all, and thank God those young women are free. – L.

Hi Folks! My friend Ellen just sent me this wonderful story from the Christian Science Monitor by Lisa Suhay about the intrepid Mary Leakey and her kids. It begins:

Today’s helicopter parents might want to explore the parenting techniques of famed paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey, whose birth 100 years ago is celebrated today. Instead of hovering over or reigning-in her three sons, Ms. Leakey handed them responsibilities early in life and brought them out on dig sites from infancy.

“Mother gave us every freedom to learn by experience as early as I can remember,” says her youngest son, Philip, 64, who now lives in Kenya and responded to questions for this blog via e-mail. “This gave me tremendous self-confidence and taught me responsibility at an early age. As I grew I was able to take on more responsibility and in a way it always put us as children ahead of the pack. It encouraged and enhanced leadership skills.”
And the rest is (pre)history! – L.
Thanks, mom!

Hi Readers — This note had me shaking, a reminder that when we give our kids more and more freedom, we have to remember that lessons go with it…and so does the possibility that we didn’t cover the very lesson they’ll need. My advice? Lots of lessons (particularly about being around water), not less freedom. – Lenore
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Dear Free-Range Kids: My Free-Range Kid got herself into some trouble yesterday, and I thought it was something your readers might want to hear about.  My daughter is 10 years old and in 5th grade.  She has been walking to school for 3 years, and generally is allowed to go out and about on her free time as long as she asks permission, tells me where she is going, and comes home when I way.  Yesterday we were at our friends’ house. I was inside with the parents, she was outside with her friend.  They asked if they could leave the yard, and went to a nearby park.  While there, the two girls decided it would be fun to see how strong the ice on the pond was.  Well, the answer was “not very” — it was 40 degrees (4 degree Celsius) yesterday, and the ice was thick on one side, but very thin on the other.  They tested it out near the edge a bit, then walked across it.  When they were almost to the other side, the ice cracked and they fell in.
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The girls screamed, and others in the park heard them.  Two kind strangers assisted by pulling one girl out with a stick, and going in after the other and carrying her out.  The police were called, and they put the girls in the back of the police car with the heater on while they got statements from both and called us to come get them.  They determined that an ambulance was NOT needed, so when we got there they told me to turn the heater on high in the car, and we took the kids home for warm showers and dry clothes.
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They were both terrified, rightfully so — falling through thin ice is extremely dangerous and we all feel very fortunate.  I generally avoid “worst first” thinking, and not having spent much time in the park in the winter, we hadn’t talked about ice rescue.  However, we have talked about it now, because the girls, while doing the most important thing (making a lot of noise to attract help), did *not* know how to get themselves out when the ice broke.  They are both researching how to properly attempt to get up onto the ice, starting with staying calm, and flattening themselves out as they pull themselves up to take up as large a surface area as possible.
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I have gotten a couple of comments about her being too young to be expected to use good judgement, and people saying that they wouldn’t trust a 10-year-old  in the park with a pond nearby.  I’m happy to say that MOST people have simply said how glad they are that the girls are okay.  I am, of course, scared of what could have happened… but what DID happen is that my daughter made a stupid decision to go out on the ice, and when a problem occurred, several very kind, helpful adults stopped to assist kids they didn’t know.  Then our amazing first responders took over and made sure they were returned safely.
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In these situations, one tends to revisit the decisions we make as parents.  Hindsight is 20/20, and if I could do things differently, I would have talked more about possible “worst case” scenarios and how to handle an emergency situation.  I would not, however, have told my daughter that she couldn’t go to the park unsupervised.  Nor will I in the future.  Important lessons were learned yesterday, and if anyone else wonders “if something happened to my kids, would I wish I had kept them under closer supervision?” the answer may be “no.”  You might, however, wish you had thought of more of the possibilities and discussed them.  Please encourage everyone (who lives in cold-weather areas) to talk to their kids about safety around iced-over ponds, to remind them to stay OFF ice that hasn’t been tested and approved for safe use, and what to do in case they are on the ice and it cracks.  I would also hope that all kids could hear about things like this and use it as evidence that *most* people they will encounter are good, kind, and helpful, and strangers are sometimes the people that will help them to avoid a tragedy. – A Shaken but Still Free-Range Mom
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Caution and Free-Ranging go hand-in-frozen-hand.

Caution and Free-Ranging go hand-in-frozen-hand.

Hi Folks! In the midst of all the usual nuttiness, let’s celebrate a nice little moment, courtesy of a  mom of four in Nebraska. You’ll note, she takes a lot of precautions because this was a first. Eventually, she won’t need them and neither will her kids because they’ll all be more confident and competent,  which is pretty much the Free-Range goal! — L.


Dear Free-Range Kids: Just wanted to send a little note about our own personal Free Range Success story. Our family recently moved from the Northern Virginia/DC suburbs to a small suburb of Omaha, Nebraska. It is much easier to be Free Range when all of your neighbors are doing it too! Kids walk and ride their bikes to school here by themselves, roam the neighborhoods, etc.
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Anyway, my kids were always trying to find ways to spend their allowances, but I was sick of the clutter they were bringing home. So I suggested that they think about using their money to attend a movie. We have four children, and taking everyone out to a show is cost prohibitive. But if two of the kids wanted to spend their own money to go by themselves. . .
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We decided on The Adventures of Tintin, as my older two (boy age 9 and girl age 11) have read the comics and it’s not a movie that my younger two would want to see. I picked a matinee hour, gave them notes to keep in their wallets in case someone questioned them or they needed to call me (similar to your “I am a Free-Range Kid” note), and we talked about the various scenarios that could go wrong and how they would handle them (movie never starts or is cancelled for techincal problems, I’m not waiting for them outside afterwards, etc.). I made them come out after buying their tickets so I could check that they had purchased the correct showing, and they went skipping back in to buy their snacks and watch their movie.
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Needless to say, they had a wonderful time. They shared a popcorn and pop and enjoyed the show. They realized my son’s wallet was missing, and asked for the lost-and-found. When it wasn’t there, they returned to their seats and found it wedged between the seat and the armrest. They came running out to find me waiting for them and to tell me all about it. My daughter had expressed surprise (and maybe disappointment?) that no one had questioned them. I told her that if they behave like adults, they will be treated like adults. They thanked me for letting them go. They were obviously very proud of themselves and I am obviously very proud of them.
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When I posted this adventure to Facebook, my brother commented that he and my younger sister were similar ages when they went to the movies by themselves. He said they sat in the front row and he spilled their pop all over the floor. Twenty years later, it’s still a fond memory for him.
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I would never have done this were it not for the Free-Range encouragement. Thank you for  making our society a saner place to live. – Nebraska Mom

Maybe it's time to let your kids escape to the movies...by themselves?

Hi Readers — Here’s a guest post from Darell Hammond, founder and CEO of KaBOOM!, a very cool, national nonprofit trying to ensure a playground within walking distance of every child. Hammond is also author of the New York Times bestselling book, KaBOOM!: How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play. So read this while you send the kids outside! — L

THE HIDDEN “PRIVILEGE” OF AN UNPRIVILEGED CHILDHOOD, by DARRELL HAMMOND

When I was 19 months old, my father went to unload a truck and never came back. My mother, who was left to care for eight children, didn’t raise us Free-Range on principle, but rather by default. She had to work multiple jobs, so we were left on our own for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Dinner was often butter and sugar sandwiches on white bread. My older siblings started skipping school, ostensibly to take care of us younger ones, but they sometimes ended up getting into trouble instead.

Eventually the bills piled up and my siblings’ frequent absences from school caught the attention of social workers. When I was four, we were all transferred to Mooseheart, a group home outside of Chicago. In many ways, life at Mooseheart was both Spartan and structured. I stored all my belongings in a single trunk; I shared a room with 23 other boys; I was summoned to classes, meals, and other activities by a whistle; and I needed written permission to move from one building to another during school hours and after dark.

But within this structure, I actually had an ample amount of freedom—more than many kids, including so-called “privileged” kids, enjoy today. For one thing, with about 1,200 acres of lush lawns, playgrounds, athletic fields, and basketball courts, Mooseheart was full of outdoor spaces for roaming and playing. And I always had other kids to play with. Rarely in my free time did I have an adult hovering over my shoulder—there simply weren’t enough adults to go around.

My childhood was unusual, yes, and certainly not desirable in every way, but it was my group home upbringing that initially opened my eyes to the importance of strong communities and of free play—even if I didn’t realize it at the time. It was Mooseheart that set me on the path to founding a community-building nonprofit dedicated to saving play—a journey I detail in my new memoir, KaBOOM!.

The Free-Range movement is often misinterpreted as a movement that gives parents license to be reckless, lax, and neglectful. Critics completely gloss over the vital role of community in the Free-Range philosophy. Say the words “child-directed free play” and they don’t envision a group of neighborhood children looking out for one another as they invent games, create new worlds, and explore their surroundings. No, instead they are haunted by images of stray kids running wild in heavily trafficked streets or careening helmetless downhill on their bikes (of course, as the pedophiles and child-snatchers lurking on every corner look on).

Beyond all the paranoia and hyperbole, the reality is that the world hasn’t become more dangerous; it’s that trust, community, and civic pride are eroding. Freedom for children without the backbone of community can be just as dangerous as too much structure—I know, because I lived it.

I would never advocate for children eating butter and sugar sandwiches for dinner, spending Christmas alone, or routinely missing school. But freedom within a strong, healthy, nourishing community—that’s what every child needs and deserves. – D.H.