“Why It May Be Impossible to Raise a Free-Range Kid” — But It’s Not

This elegantly written essay is by a dad I’ve met, Michael Brendan Dougherty. He longs to raise his child Free-Range but believes it may be impossible in this day and age:

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.

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The only way to get kids back outside is to…send them outside.

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29 Responses to “Why It May Be Impossible to Raise a Free-Range Kid” — But It’s Not

  1. Jessica January 25, 2017 at 11:54 am #

    I love this, Lenore. Someone has to go first! I also look around and think, “My son doesn’t want to play outside, because there’s nobody to play with out there.” So I must commit to taking/making him play outside, and trust that eventually someone will join in. 🙂

  2. Jetsanna January 25, 2017 at 11:59 am #

    If my neighbors’ kids are locked out, they know to come here. I have the keys to their houses. After all, I’m the one who feeds all the dogs when no one is home.

  3. Workshop January 25, 2017 at 12:21 pm #

    Neighborhoods aren’t built by developers. They’re built by the people living in them.

    The best way to start building something is to start building it. Walk over to a neighbor’s house with some extra food or a fresh loaf of bread. Ask for a ride to the mechanic’s shop to pick up your car. Start building the connections that lead to a neighborhood. No one else can do it.

  4. John B. January 25, 2017 at 12:52 pm #

    About 11 years ago, still long after helicoptering kids became the norm, the power went off inside my house on a Tuesday afternoon. About 10 minutes later I hear a knock on my door. Upon answering it, a cute little 8-year-old girl was standing in front of my door and asked to use my phone. I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me. So I told her that she was very welcomed to use my phone and I then asked her if everything was OK. She replied it was but that the power went off in her home so she wanted to call her mom at work to let her know. Well, I was a bit skeptical of inviting her in my home considering it may give the appearance of evil so I brought my cell phone to her as she waited outside my door. So she called her mom and everything was OK.

    Obviously she was a latchkey child and I’m darn glad she came to my door instead of to my next door neighbors to the north. Now they are very nice people but knowing them as well as I do, I’m almost certain they would have called the police to report an unintended child. No way would I have ever done that because the little girl was just fine!

  5. Dienne January 25, 2017 at 1:02 pm #

    My biggest holdback has been that I live in Illinois where kids can’t legally be alone until age 14! We still do free range-y stuff. This past summer the kids met a girl in the neighborhood, so they run around together sans adults. Next year they’re all going to walk to and from school (their school does not allow kids to sign themselves out until 5th grade, sigh) and we’ve left them home alone from time to time (which is actually legal to do now that my 14 year old step daughter came to live with us, but we started doing it before she came). I’m committed to taking these steps, but every time we do something I live in fear. Not that something will happen to them or that they can’t handle it, but fear of the busy-body who’s going to report us to DCFS, or fear of the freak accident (which we couldn’t have prevented even if we’d been there), which brings the police or other authorities to our front door.

  6. Kirsten January 25, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

    I remember when we went on vacation once when I was 7 and we rented a house in a suburban neighborhood in Goleta, CA. This was in the 1970s. There were these two boys playing in the front yard next door. I was too shy to go over and introduce myself directly so I decided I would play in the front yard of our rental next to them and that maybe it would lead to us eventually talking. That’s exactly what happened. I had a sixth sense that if I sort of imitated them (parallel play if I’d had the word for it) that would be how we would meet. I ended up spending all my time with them and with two other kids who lived cater-corner to them and around the corner who they introduced me to. There’s a picture of me and all four of them sitting at a table eating birthday cake (it was someone’s birthday) and we are all beaming like the oldest of friends. It was so easy and I wasn’t even at home.

  7. diane January 25, 2017 at 1:52 pm #

    Great post! I was heartened yesterday to receive an email from the dad of one of my 4th grader’s friends. He said he noticed my daughter walked herself home, and was considering giving permission for his daughter to do the same, since he can’t always be at the school right at dismissal time, and asked if it’d be okay if they walked together until their paths split. (Of course! I replied.)

    The more kids are seen looking after themselves, the more at ease adults will be, and if more of them are outside, they won’t be “alone” – they’ll be safer, looking after one another, too. Building communities.

  8. Sabra Barksdale January 25, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

    I am a mom to a 3 month old boy and we just found out we are expecting our second little one in August. I can see myself being both parents. While my husband and I tend to be laid back as parents, I still worry for the safety of my kids. Luckily, we live out away from town and everyone around us is family. I know our kids will always grow up in this safe environment where the only thing I should worry about it them getting into poison ivy or getting stung by a wasp. I am new to the blogging community so please share my site! themindfulmommysite.wordpress.com

    Thanks and have a blissfully mindful day!

  9. Kenny Felder January 25, 2017 at 3:25 pm #

    Like anything else, you get there one small step at a time. Here is my suggested first step (assuming your kids are the right age): encourage your kids to have a lemonade stand. They set up next to the street, in your front yard or on a nearby corner. Then, perhaps after a few minutes, you *LEAVE* and go home. Your kids know exactly where and how to find you, but they are greeting neighbors and selling lemonade on their own. Let them and your neighbors experience that and see how it goes.

    The biggest danger in this whole plan is that a media-inspired voice inside your head will keep saying “What if they get kidnapped”? If you are at all swayed by numbers, look them up–the odds are much much much higher that they will get killed tomorrow while you’re driving them to the grocery store. (That may not be comforting but it’s true anyway.) But the real change will happen after you do this and they come home happy and fabulously wealthy. (“We made three dollars and twenty-five cents! Can we buy ice cream?” Hint: the answer is yes.) The more often you have this experience, the more that fear-voice will quiet.

  10. lollipoplover January 25, 2017 at 3:43 pm #

    “The expectation was that “we” were all in this together.”

    Lots of places still are! I am reading this after just going out for a walk with my dogs around the neighborhood. Before I did, I got the mail and while at the mailbox, was asked by a small boy(7 or 8) on a bike where the Morgan house was. He was on the wrong street. I gave him directions to the family’s house and sent him on his way. The kids had a half-day of school today and none of my 3 came home, they went to their friends on bikes after school or made other plans (oldest went to the gym from school in his friend’s car).

    While walking, I was passed by two young children (8 or 9) on scooters. They said hello to the dogs. Next, I saw 3 teens sitting on the curb. I said hi to them as they awkwardly said hello back. More kids up ahead biking, probably passed another 6 or 8. The weather is warm and most of the kids are home from school and out playing. It exists…children still play outside as a normal and great part of a neighborhood..

    I highly suggest to people who are fearful of letting their kids play to get themselves outside to see what the danger really is. Reality is a lot less scary than most of their fears. We are all in this together. It shows that you live in a great neighborhood if kids are outside playing?

  11. Dienne January 25, 2017 at 4:14 pm #

    Kenny Felder,

    In my neighborhood, the biggest danger of a lemonade stand is that you’d get busted for not having a permit (I kid you not), and the permit application says right on it that the parent agrees that the child will never be left unsupervised. *Face palm*

    But if you live in a sane municipality, that’s probably a good suggestion.

  12. Deborah Caldwell January 25, 2017 at 5:00 pm #

    Dear Brendan,
    I have moved forty times within the last forty years, and each time I would make the neighborhood mine. Different ways. Different neighborhoods. But it was up to me. Not them.
    It’s up to you.
    Love from Debbie

  13. JJ January 25, 2017 at 5:20 pm #

    Two years ago, my then-kindergartener began to walk to and from school on her own. Neighbours and family friends would report on how proud she looked, sometimes walk with her, and sometimes have their children walk with her. Her teacher expressed some trepidation, but did not ask for me to change that routine.

    Now my youngest is in Kindergarten and walks to school with her sister, with other Kindergarten friends, or by herself. This amount of freedom seems less remarkable this time around. When my Kindergarten daughter walks home with a friend who lives out of town and would otherwise not have this opportunity, I take pictures of their arrival and the pride in their faces to send to their parents.

    When I talk about this freedom in early childhood with other parents, we usually agree. This is the time to begin to experience freedom, make choices and take risks, so that when the challenges of being a preteen and teen arrive, they have enough experience to have developed some judgement and risk assessment skills.

  14. donald January 25, 2017 at 5:47 pm #

    Propose a walking bus. Make a flyer. Make 100 photocopies of it. Do a mailbox drop around your house.

    Flyer

    I propose a walking bus. My son John is 8 years old and will walk to school. I will walk with him for the first week only. We live at 1573 Green St. His route will be as follows. Note all times are approximate

    Green st 8:15
    Bintani st 8:20
    Tanby st 8:25
    Lang st 8:30
    Jefferson School 8:40

    This is an invitation to any children that wants to join.
    I will walk with my son until February 20. If any parents want to meet me first, I’ll be available until then.

  15. donald January 25, 2017 at 6:08 pm #

    Take the initiative. Make the first move. Ok, that’s easy to say but not so easy to do. However, if you do this you accomplish two things.

    1. You start to make the neighborhood friendly
    2. You set a good example for your child. Children learn best by example. The foundation of happiness or misery is Locus of Control. (LOC)
    External LOC = the attitude that thing must happen before I can do ‘X’
    Internal LOC = the attitude that I am in control of my happiness

    LOC is a HUGE topic and much more than what I can explain. However, I urge you to google it. The link is a start but there is more to it than that

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locus_of_control

  16. donald January 25, 2017 at 6:15 pm #

    BTW making your child the ‘leader’ of the walking bus is a great way to develop his internal LOC

  17. AmyP January 25, 2017 at 6:36 pm #

    This is so true. I would also add that we have to get over the anxiety of the busybodies as well. For me, this is what held me back for a while. I did not want to leave my kids at the park alone, not for fear of kidnappera, but instead for fear that somebody would call the police. Finally, my strong belief that it is and should be legal to let your age appropriate children play alone outside alone led me to just go for it. I dropped them off at a busting park and left for a little while. I was anxious about this the whole time, but guess what? Nothing happened other than the kids having a good time and me running a couple short errands in peace. I’ve done it several times since. We do hear stories of people being arrested or having the police called but I think just like kidnapping being a rare occurrence so is this. I guess if it happens, I will worry about it then, but I’m not going to change my parenting style in the meantime. And just as children get less and less anxious the more they do something, so do parents.

  18. Dienne January 25, 2017 at 7:32 pm #

    donald,

    You already know the worst-first response to your idea, right? “OMG, you’re going to announce you son’s name and address and exact location??? Why don’t you just post his picture on a sex trafficking website with the words ‘Virgin boy looking to be abducted’???”

  19. Not necessary @Dienne January 25, 2017 at 8:07 pm #

    @Dienne

    Don’t propagate unwarranted, unneeded and unwanted hysteria by passing along sex trafficking misinformation in reply to @Donald’s idea of an example what to do in the neighborhood with children walking to school. It is proven groups of kids are left alone.

  20. donald January 25, 2017 at 8:18 pm #

    LOL

    Dienne. You’re right. Some parents will react that way

  21. donald January 25, 2017 at 8:26 pm #

    @Dienne

    The news had a similar response @ Lenore when she announced the first, ‘Take your children to the park and leave them there day’. I.E. she was worse than a terrorist because she is ADVERTISING for pedophiles and sex slave trade workers.

  22. Jessica January 25, 2017 at 9:35 pm #

    AmyP
    You are absolutely right. I’ve started leaving my 5-yo son in the car to play happily for 10 minutes while I run in a store. I had the overcome the fear that someone will call 911 and I’ll get arrested and this and that and this and that. Like you said– we live our lives, and we can be a nervous wreck about these things, or we can choose not to be.

  23. Michelle January 26, 2017 at 8:10 am #

    When I was a kid, almost all of the moms knew worked. I knew ONE family with a SAHM. (I was born in ’81.) But all the kids still played outside when we were home. There are still people in the neighborhood, probably more now that telecommuting is so popular (and I think there are even more SAHMs now than in the late 80s/early 90s). There are also retirees, and kids who are old enough to stay home alone, and people who are on their day off, and younger kids with babysitters, etc. You just have to meet them.

    When we first moved to this neighborhood a decade ago, there were no kids outside. But I kept sending my kids out, and eventually other kids started coming out, too. Occasionally my kids make a friend who ends up never being allowed to come out and play, but mostly other parents feel more comfortable letting their kids out when they know they won’t be alone. Our neighborhood has gotten progressively more Free Range over the years. Even our local school started ENCOURAGING kids to walk home! (Although that was primarily about bussing cutbacks, I think it helped that none of the neighbors threw a fit about their kid walking.)

  24. pentamom January 26, 2017 at 10:47 am #

    Not necessary — Dienne’s comment was representative of how people would react, not her own view. Read the first sentence again.

  25. Mark Roulo January 26, 2017 at 12:43 pm #

    “We do hear stories of people being arrested or having the police called but I think just like kidnapping being a rare occurrence so is this. I guess if it happens, I will worry about it then, but I’m not going to change my parenting style in the meantime.”

    Yes!

    If my local (west coast) news has to go to North Carolina for a story about parents tangling with the police or child protective services because they allowed their kids “too much” independence, then this sort of tangling can’t be very common. Just like if we have to go to Minnesota for a child abducted by a stranger, it can’t be very common, either.

    My wife and I chose to give our child more independence than is the norm in our neighborhood. We figured we’d deal with police complaints if/when they happened. We were fortunate (though not lucky because I expect most folks who do what we do to be fortunate) and never had to deal with the police or CPS.

  26. Stacey Gordon January 27, 2017 at 2:42 pm #

    We don’t have neighborhoods anymore because neighborhoods are no longer being designed with walking in mind. Dead end Cul de sac subdivisions with no connections to the next dead end cul de sac subdivision is what we have.
    http://southgeek.blogspot.com/2012/07/virtualactuality-attheir-core-i-believe.html

  27. lollipoplover January 28, 2017 at 10:52 am #

    “There are still people in the neighborhood, probably more now that telecommuting is so popular (and I think there are even more SAHMs now than in the late 80s/early 90s). There are also retirees, and kids who are old enough to stay home alone, and people who are on their day off, and younger kids with babysitters, etc. You just have to meet them.”

    ^^^THIS^^^

    I telecommute along with 4 of my neighbors on our street. There are 2 SAHM’s on my street and 2 retirees. Someone is always home! I believe the more people that know your kids and care for them, the more to support raising a free range kid. The way to change the tide of fear towards kids is to learn to compromise to get the kids outside and just be good neighbors- respectful, considerate, helpful. This gains us many extra yards to play manhunt. It also has created *work* opportunities as my kids have grown to babysit, dog sit, mow lawns, leaf removal, shoveling, firewood stacking, etc.

    One of the retirees (in poor health) on my block rang our doorbell last week while I wasn’t home. My son (15) answered and the man asked if my husband was home because he need help moving a heavy object off of a truck. My son volunteered. I didn’t know about it until this morning when the man returned to deliver a gift card for my son and told me. My son is not home now (working), but I am proud of him. It’s the little things that make great neighborhoods.

  28. GiGi February 3, 2017 at 6:44 pm #

    I love this! I completely agree and do this often with my 10 year old step daughter and hope to do this with my own kids someday too. It’s sad that there are probably 50 kids in a 5 block radius and you wouldn’t know it from how quiet the streets are.

  29. Claudia February 5, 2017 at 4:30 pm #

    It is a great idea… I think one thing that also gets in the way is this lingering guilt that we might be perceived as ‘asking for free child care’ from another parent, although of course that should be a natural part of any community