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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