Readers! One of the things I do in my book (remember that?) is show that what we think of as a “normal” amount of child oversight is actually not the norm around the world. Here’s a mom who is enjoying that gap! — Lenore
Dear Free-Range Kids: I’m living in Okinawa, Japan now, while my husband serves a three year tour on a military base here. We were fortunate to get a nearly American-sized house off-base with a yard, albeit a small one, so as to immerse ourselves in the culture.
When we arrived in 2008 our kids were 3, 5, and 7 years old. I was nervous to even let them go out in the yard without me. Rightfully so, I think, as they were still young and without any Free-Range experience, just as I was.
But after a few months, I let them play alone in the yard with the gate closed, as long as the house windows were open. Then, a little later, they were allowed to ride their bikes and scooters in the street, but only to the second light pole, and only if the house windows were open — and so on. It went on that way for the last two and a half years, with me adding little freedoms here and there until I I could trust them enough to, 1: get along with each other, and 2: find their way back home.
Now they are 6, 8, and 10! They have friends in the neighborhood and all the mamas know them. They speak enough Japanese to make new friends and to get help if they need it. It has sort of snowballed in recent months, in that this week I gave them the house number of one of their friends who always comes over here. Then I sent them out to find her and go play. They came back two hours later.
It dawned on me why the Japanese mamas seem so calm and put together: They don’t have children under their feet in the house all afternoon, arguing over toys and video games. Their kids are outdoors playing! Japanese families know how to do Free-Range! It’s expected that kids play outdoors without their mama, and we have seen them starting as young as 2 or 3 years old, usually playing with older siblings. There is a large park in our neighborhood which is almost always full with kids and not a mama in sight. The whole island is pedestrian-friendly, and many Japanese don’t own cars. The pedestrian traffic is high and so drivers are extra careful. Kids who want to cross the street need only stand at the curb and raise their arm in the air. Traffic stops. Really.
This week has been full of Free-Range moments. My middle child is upset with me this morning because I have neglected to restock the fridge with milk. He’s 8 years old and he must have milk for his cereal. So he has taken all the spare change he could find and gone to the small grocery store about three blocks over. He’ll have to wait for the stoplight to cross the last street. He knows where to find the milk, how to ask for help, and how to use the currency. The first time he went was about a year ago with his scooter, and he turned right back around and came home when he couldn’t figure out where to park it. The next time he went with his little sister and they walked, so no parking issues. The funny thing is, it is his older brother who watches the clock when he’s gone and waits for them at the front door!
Little Man returned yammering on about a new route he found, and I swear he grows an inch every time.
Yesterday, his little sister came to me crying (literally) because someone (my oldest son) told her that in America it’s against the law to ride your bike outside without someone watching you. I don’t know if he was trying to tease her, or if that’s really his impression of life back there.
We actually just got our orders to move back to Virginia. I have been trying to imagine what it will be like for our kids to return to a place where we will have to argue for our right to be Free-Range. Our friends who live on-base out here don’t seem to have the same freedom to let their kids roam outdoors.
A few years ago, I saw a document that had been published on base, outlining at what age and how long kids are allowed to be left without supervision. On the one hand, the guidelines are helpful, but they are also limiting. It’s purported to be safer on-base than off in most stateside military towns. But here in Japan, I feel safer off-base! Safer from well meaning authorities and one-size-fits-all guidelines! — Jackie Lewis