Wanda Holland Greene’s Thoughts on Free-Range Kids

Readers: A few weeks ago I spoke at The Hamlin School in San Francisco. It’s an all-girl school, housed in re-purposed mansion and headed by the dynamic Wanda Holland Greene. She and I were so on the same page after my talk (and I overheard her say she’d laughed so hard her “stomach hurt”) that we decided to continue the conversation with any parents who cared to join us, in her office. There, we talked about our own childhoods, what we loved doing as kids, and how we could give those experiences BACK to our kids. And then Wanda wrote up this newsletter, slightly edited for space, for all the families.

I love it. (And I laughed, too!)  Thank you, Wanda!- L

Free-Range for the Holidays

 Reflections by Head of School Wanda M. Holland Greene

Friday, November 15, 2013

When my friends and family from the East Coast read this edition of the newsletter, they might officially revoke my Native New Yorker card.  As a San Francisco resident for the past five years, I have been accused of losing my Brooklyn edge because I have adopted several Northern Californian tendencies:

a) complaining about “cold weather” (48 degrees and foggy)

b) rising in the dark for morning boot camp classes on the beach

c) fixating on any sandwich layered with sliced avocado

d) ordering a “massaged” kale salad without laughing

Yes, I’ve gone soft.  However, the behavior that proves that I have truly crossed over to the dark (or at least west) side is this:

e) buying my annual Thanksgiving turkey from A TURKEY CONCIERGE

Did I mention that I’ve that gone soft?

Upon arrival in San Francisco in 2008, I soon discovered that all cows, chickens, and turkeys are NOT created equal. Specifically, I learned that free-range turkeys have continuous access to the outdoors during the daytime.  The range is largely covered in vegetation and allows wide-open space to roam. This unrestricted access to fresh air and daylight means better health and quality of life.  The moment that I knew the facts of farm life, I headed straight to Whole Foods, spoke to the friendly turkey concierge there, ordered my medium-sized, almost-cooked bird, and I haven’t looked back.

I was reminded recently that turkeys aren’t the only things that should be free-range.  One week ago, the Parents Association and I joined in welcoming “America’s Worst Mom” to Hamlin.  Lenore Skenazy, a columnist in New York City, became an international symbol (not the positive kind) when she allowed her 9 year-old son to take the subway all by himself.  Her sense was that fostering his independence and allowing him “free range” were important to his social-emotional development. She did not allow her fear of danger to prevent her from raising a sturdy, capable, and self-reliant child.

Well, her actions unleashed the kind of hysteria seen previously only on The Jerry Springer Show.   Talk show hosts wondered aloud if she loved her children, parents accused her of abuse and neglect, and Law & Order writers ripped the story from the headlines.  Like most New Yorkers, Lenore responded by reclaiming her dignity, and she used the power of the pen to fight “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.”

With side-splitting humor, Lenore engaged Hamlin parents in a thoughtful conversation about how our parental fears hold our children back from developing independence and confidence.

She gently chided us about carpool guidelines (“drop-off” and “pick-up” are words used for children, as if they were fragile packages) and showed us gadgets designed for infant and child safety.  (If you weren’t there, just ask someone about the rubber duck with the heat sensor, or the kneepads for crawling babies.)  Lenore explained to us why parents are consumed with worry, and she offered us advice and practical strategies to help us “lean out” (of our children’s lives) and let go just a little.

Are you a parent who hardly lets your child(ren) out of your sight?  Do you refuse to allow your daughter to walk the dog, walk to the store, or walk to school on Wednesdays?  Look at what happens when I substitute “child(ren)” for “turkeys” in the previous paragraph:

I learned that free-range children have continuous access to the outdoors during the daytime.  The range is largely covered in vegetation and allows wide-open space to roam; this unrestricted access to fresh air and daylight means better health and quality of life….

Children need to stand on their own strong legs—physically and emotionally.  We will unintentionally stunt their growth if we carry them around everywhere and never let them roam on their own.

During the upcoming holiday season, I want us to try out the Free-Range philosophy.  (Do whatever you like with your turkey—this philosophy is about children.)  If you have a Lower School daughter, give her permission to enjoy Winterfest [a festival on school grounds] without you for 20, 30, or 60 minutes.  Do you really have to be there when she goes to the carnival or plays on the rooftop, or can she enjoy those activities with a friend while you eat and browse on your own?

After Winterfest, you may decide to sign the Middle School form for “walking privileges” and allow your daughter and a friend to go enjoy frozen yogurt, or to take the bus or walk to meet you somewhere after school.  Maybe you will give her the task of walking the dog alone or buying a few items at a nearby Walgreen’s, and you won’t follow her with your eyes or your feet!

Lenore gave us much to think about at the Parents Association meeting and during the post-meeting roundtable discussion in my office. Essentially, we all have to ask ourselves,When and how does our love for our precious children morph into something harmful rather than good, and what will we do to pull ourselves back from the edge of paranoia?”  Parents need to help each other as we strike the right balance between setting limits and encouraging freedom.

My sister Donna and I rode the New York City subway by ourselves when we were in elementary school. We did the grocery shopping for the entire family every Saturday morning and went to the Laundromat regularly to wash sheets, towels, and clothes.  We took the bus to choir rehearsals.  Every day felt like a Free-Range day.  I admit that I used to think that my mother and father had had children for the free labor, but I now realize that they were preparing my sister and me for life.  Now that my parents are deceased, I truly realize the blessing of having loving parents who did not hover.

I am now working on quelling my own parental fears so that David and Jonathan thrive.  I was a happy and successful Free-Range Kid, and I now want to be a happy and successful Free-Range parent.

Please peruse Lenore’s website (www.freerangekids.com), watch her show on the Discovery Channel (when you are traveling outside of the USA—it does not air here), or read her book, and let’s talk turkey.  Free range, of course.  — W.H.G.


Wanda Holland Greene, head of The Hamlin School

Wanda Holland Greene, head of The Hamlin School. (Photo: Elizabeth Beck)


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14 Responses to Wanda Holland Greene’s Thoughts on Free-Range Kids

  1. Buffy December 10, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    Possibly I should move from the Midwest to San Francisco. Because not only do I fixate on any sandwich layered with sliced avocado, I fixate on any food with any form of avocado.

    Carry on!

  2. Jen Connelly December 10, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    It’s not just California, it’s the entire Pacific Coast. It’s like that up here in the Portland, OR area, too.

    And, on top of that, we are very free-range friendly up here. I live in Washington State, outside of Vancouver (which is across the river from Portland) and my free-range kids are all over the place. My 12yo son regularly takes the 2 hour bus ride to the mall with his friends and has been doing it since around the time he turned 11. They walk all over town and hang out at a local swimming hole on the river.

  3. Lisa December 10, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

    This is SO fabulous and SO inspiring! Kudos to Ms. Wanda Holland Greene, what an inspiration as a school leader. I live in the East San Francisco Bay Area in the “burbs” and I assure you, this mentality by school leadership and teachers is not prevalent, along with parents of course.

    I’ve been meaning to share how my son’s elementary school just started a Walking School Bus program. Which is terrific! Except… the program is starting with the children meeting at the park adjacent to the school. LOL. Parents, most likely, will drive their parents to this park, drop them off in the highly organized school bus groups, and then the children will walk a couple hundred yards to the entrance of the school, carefully guarded by the volunteer parents of course. It is a nice idea and I’m glad they’re starting it, but it’s mostly because our traffic situation at the school is a nightmare (school is designed for approx 700 children, it has 1,000). It’s not to encourage and promote children to be independent in getting to school. In fact, the flier promoting this program does not mention this benefit at all. It does however tout benefits to the environment and to the traffic situation. ..sigh…

    SO, it is with happiness and surprise that I read your post today. I hope Ms. Greene’s positive message spreads to the larger Bay Area. We could really use it!

  4. Donna December 11, 2013 at 8:30 am #

    Not related to this article particularly, but does anyone else feel squelched in their free range desires by other parents? I don’t mean worry what other parents will think but by your kids not having any friends to be free range with?

    My daughter is at an age where I definitely think that she is ready for more freedom than simply wandering around the block by herself. Problem is that she doesn’t want to do things alone and none of her friends can go with her.

    For example, and why I’ve been thinking about this, we went to see Frozen over Thanksgiving and my daughter loved it. In typical kid fashion, she wants to see it again and again. I enjoyed it but am happy with my one-time viewing. Over Christmas break, I would love to do what my parents did when I was her age and send her and some friends to see Frozen while I go see a different movie. She would be so excited and feel so grown up, but I can’t think of a single one of her friends who would be allowed to do this with her and she doesn’t want to sit in the theater alone. It is very frustrating.

  5. Christine Hancock December 11, 2013 at 10:07 am #

    @ Donna
    I absolutely know what you mean. I live in a neighborhood where there are few young children to begin with. We have to go to the local playground and get lucky to find them; and even then they are highly , almost overbearingly supervised. I don’t mind parents being present at the playground with pre-k kids, but it’s hard to have a conversation when they are so bent on protecting their little ones from every splinter and scrape that they chase their children around and every other word out of their mouth is either “no” or “slow down”. The only other mom I actually had an intelligible conversation with was terrified of kidnapping, as if the country highways and backroads of Northern Michigan were teeming with roaming gypsies, ninja, and non-custodial parents.

    Still, I try to find ways to let my kids experience free range. I refuse to teach my children that every stranger is a potential murderer/kidnapper; and I try not to intervene too much in their play especially on the off chance that they do find other children with relaxed parents to play with.

  6. Christine Hancock December 11, 2013 at 10:16 am #

    @ Donna again
    The movie question would definitely stump me. She may need to go alone if she wants to see it that bad, assuming of course she is ready to fly solo.

  7. nina December 11, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    Due to work we’ve lived in many different neighborhoods in different cities and different states. When we arrive there is usually very little free ranging going on among other parents, but so farwe’ve been able to chachange it everywhere we lived. It’s a slow process to get other parents on board, so we try to lead by example. Of course it helps that all 3 of our children are very sociable, make friends easily and for some strange reason are usually considered to be good influence on other children :). Even if you don’t think that other parents will let their kids to go to movies or a park with your children, it doesn’t hurt to ask. You may be surprised. Start little and then go bigger.

  8. E. Simms December 11, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    @nina “Even if you don’t think that other parents will let their kids to go to movies or a park with your children, it doesn’t hurt to ask. You may be surprised. Start little and then go bigger.”

    Offer to pay. Everybody likes free stuff.

  9. hineata December 11, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    @Donna – once you find those friends to go with her, and good luck with that BTW, are you sure the theater will let them go in unaccompanied? We seem to have no hard and fast rule, but up to a year ago were still having some issues leaving the two girls together at a movie. While Midge still looks very young, the ‘baby’ doesn’t, and both have student Id. Another country, I know, but given that we tend to be a bit less on the hysterical side of child safety, double good luck with that! :-)

  10. Donna December 11, 2013 at 11:32 am #

    @hineata – I really don’t think the theater will let them go in unaccompanied. I would go inside with them, but then go to a different movie. Once you are in the building, nobody bothers you. I rarely even see any employees once beyond the popcorn counter.

  11. Tommy Udo December 11, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

    When I was seven, the theater downtown (about a half mile from my neighborhood) had Saturday matinees, and all the kids got a quarter from their moms, walked down there, and saw the movie. A couple of hours later we’d all come wandering back to our street and spend the rest of the day running around to each other’s houses and yards, playing until after dusk when we were called in for dinner. Those are some of my best memories and I feel sorry for the adults of tomorrow who won’t have anything similar to look back on. I don’t have a kid, but if I did, he or she would be as free-range as a coyote on the prairie (or as I was when I was a child).

  12. Emily December 11, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

    About the movie theatres not allowing kids to ENTER the premises unaccompanied by an adult, but not paying attention to whether or not they’re actually supervised in the theatres themselves, am I crazy to think that this is less motivated by “safety,” and more motivated by money? I mean, think about it–a child’s movie ticket costs much less than an adult’s movie ticket, even if they’re going to the same movie, and each occupying one seat. If they want snacks, then an adult will usually order a larger snack for him-or-herself than for a child, except in special cases (parent on a diet, teenage boy who eats like a trash compactor, etc.) So, the people at the ticket counter are watching to make sure children are supervised by adults. The people at the concession stand are also watching to make sure children are supervised by adults. Notice how those are usually the only two places in the theatre where money changes hands? After that’s over, it seems as if the concern for “safety” is as well. Sure, there may be liability issues, but I’d imagine that they’d be much less at a movie theatre, where the primary activity is sitting still, than at a more “active” entertainment/recreational venue.

  13. Kay December 12, 2013 at 2:03 am #

    Wow, so glad a school has had you speak at their facility and making a difference at least with one person who may have additional influence on other parents. Way to go! Yeah for rationality!

    “My sister Donna and I rode the New York City subway by ourselves when we were in elementary school. We did the grocery shopping for the entire family every Saturday morning and went to the Laundromat regularly to wash sheets, towels, and clothes. We took the bus to choir rehearsals.”

    That right there. Kids were capable, and at a young age, and now they’re not?

  14. R. Stone December 12, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    “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.”

    Men… Hmmmm… I know of some MHRA’s – myself among them – who’d have a field day with that one…