The “free range kids” movement speaks exactly to what I want for my children: a childhood that teaches independence and self-reliance, a childhood like my own. And yet I’m worried that I can’t avoid the helicopter. I know that crime is way, way down from when I was a free range kid. (Back then it was just called “childhood.”) I know that the chances of stranger-danger are infinitesimally small. But I already have some of the anxiety that motivates over-protective parents. I want to imitate the free-rangers, but am afraid to do so. And I think I’ve discovered one reason why. Free range kids, and the parental trust that enables them, are at least partly dependent on a feature of American life that is dead or dying in many areas: the neighborhood.
When I was still filming my reality show, “World’s Worst Mom,” I’d visit super-anxious parents who couldn’t let their kids out of their sight. My job was to sit with those moms and dads while I sent their kids on tiny independence missions, like having them walk to the corner store to buy bread.
I worked with 13 families and 12 of them changed beyond recognition. Parents who hadn’t let their kids go on a sleepover, or walk to a friend’s house, ended up joyfully allowing those things once they’d seen with their own eyes just how normal and fun it was for their kids to do something on their own.
But one family in suburban New Jersey was convinced that even the 4-minute walk home from school was too dangerous for their girls, aged 7 and 8. And the reason, according to the mom, was that “We don’t know any of our neighbors.”
She and her husband had grown up in Brooklyn and knew everyone on the block. Her husband had even been beaten up as a teen — seriously — but not only was he still allowed to go outside (he was a teen, after all), so were all his younger siblings, because his mother did not think this incident meant the neighborhood was innately dangerous. And my guess is that this was because everyone sent their kids outside, as Brendan notes.
So I was trying to get this family to let their kids do something besides play inside or in the fenced-in backyard, where no one else could see them. “How about you let your kids play in the front yard, too?” I suggested. “That way you WOULD start getting to know your neighbors. The kids would see who goes by, other kids might come out to play, you’d be creating a neighborhood you feel safe in.”
The mom said they couldn’t…because they didn’t know their neighbors.
So that’s my advice to Brendan, too. The only way to get kids back to playing outside is to send them there, even with you joining them at first, if need be. I’ve heard from so many commenters on this blog (and in real life, too) that once they started their kids walking to school, other parents asked, “Do you mind if my kids walk with yours?”
And of course, we also have to work to change the laws so that giving kids independence is not misinterpreted as negligence. That’s why any town that passes the Free-Range Kids and Parents Bill of Rights will see its property values soar: People WANT to live in communities where kids are allowed — and encouraged — to play outside.
In his essay, Brendan wrote that:
If I came home from school and was locked out, I could knock on about a dozen doors and would immediately receive assistance, whether that came in the form of a phone to call my mother, a bowl of butterscotch candies, or a remote control to watch afternoon cartoons. The expectation was that “we” were all in this together.
We still are in this together. Knock on 12 doors and you will find a parent like me, who works at home. It’s not that moms are working, or we’re all so mobile, or suddenly cruel and indifferent. It’s that we have fallen out of the habit of sending and seeing kids outside.
Bring it back, Brendan! Your kids — and all the kids in the neighborhood — will thank you. – L.