My Free Range Childhood

Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s you could look around my hometown and see kids wondering the streets unsupervised on a regular basis. Among those kids you would almost always find a ten year old me riding my bike to the park or pool down the street, or walking the 1 1/2 miles to the public library or Tasty Freeze. If I wanted to go to the mall or a movie, my parents had no qualms with dropping me and my friends off for a couple hours. If I wanted to go to a friend’s house within town, I didn’t have to wait until I had a ride. My feet were perfectly capable of taking me.

If I wasn’t around town I was running through the woods in my backyard. I built forts, climbed trees, scrapped my legs on thorn bushes, brushed through poison ivy, played war games, had campfires, and generally lived as if I were Pocahontas herself from the time I woke up to well past dark. If my parents needed me they could step outside and yell my name, but I was otherwise left to do as I pleased without their hovering as a distraction.

I was to a tee a free range kid, but that wasn’t what it was called back then. Instead it was simply refereed to as being a kid. My parents always knew my whereabouts. They trusted that I exercise the caution they taught me, and simply let me be.

These days when I visit my hometown I take a glimpse around and realize that while there were once handfuls of kids roving the place, I have seen very few unsupervised children lately. The kids at tasty freeze or the library are almost always accompanied by an adult. Children on bikes seem to be confined to their driveways rather than allowed to zip through the neighborhood.  I don’t remember the last time I saw a kid under 16 in a movie theater or mall by themselves. Times have drastically changed since I’ve grown up.

On one hand I can understand why this is. It is incredibly easy for parents to imagine in very vivid ways the driver of a rusty windowless van sitting at the side of a park, beckoning young children to get in. It’s a chilling thought, but it’s also mostly one of the imagination rather than practicality. We’ve heard it said that times have changed since “back in the day”, but that seems to be an assumption built out of emotion rather than evidence. In fact, when we do look at evidence we can find that times have actually gotten better. The chances of a “stereotypical kidnapping” (a case of a stranger snatching a child) is extremely rare.

In a 2011 report it is noted that homicide rates in general have “declined to levels last seen in the mid-1960’s“, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, with the majority of homicide cases against children being the fault of a parent or other family member. If you’ve ever stopped to look at the missing person’s bulletin board at Walmart you can see that most cases of kidnappings involve a custody issue within families, or a runaway situation.

It is heavily unlikely that a child will be picked up at the mall by a stranger, yet I rarely see kids hanging out in the food court alone with their friends like I used to do. What’s far more likely is a stranger meeting a child through social media, and yet there are more children at younger ages carrying their own smartphones and laptops. The idea of allowing children the freedom to explore their physical locations unsupervised is becoming significantly more challenged by the justice system (you can see a few cases here, here, and here). However, the idea of a 12 year old having practically unlimited access to the internet isn’t as widely considered to be neglectful.

It is natural parental instinct to constantly worry over a child’s safety, and it can sometimes be a struggle to make decisions that effect their well being. There is a comfort in having control over a situation, and when a child is under direct supervision it is easier to believe they are doing okay than when they’re allowed to drift on their own. Strangers can’t threaten them, bullies can’t hurt their feelings, and we can step in when they’re about to break a bone. Not only is it hard to trust the world around them, but it is also hard to trust them. It’s almost as if there is a piece of parental subconscious that believes children have no regard for their own well being, and lack any awareness of safety. Whether we want to admit this out loud or not, it is easy to withhold trust unfairly rather than giving them the space to take responsibility over their own security.

Is our knee-jerk reaction to be overly safe the best for their long-term welfare? Hovering over our children will grant us the ability to swoop in when a situation becomes uncomfortable, but at some point the lessons children will learn from their freedom will outweigh the risks taken when parents let go of some control. As I think back on my own experience as a free range kid I strongly believe that the freedom I had as a rover instilled some of the traits I find most useful as an adult.

If I wanted to go somewhere in town, and my grandmother (who raised me) was too busy to drive me, I was told to walk. To this day I maintain a “if you want something done, do it yourself” mentality that has gotten me through a number of stressful situations where I couldn’t rely on others. The idea of walking a mile to get ice cream, or to meet a friend, or to pick up a book from the library, or to buy supplies from the hardware store for a creative project was not foreign to me. I was motivated to abandon a little bit of laziness in place of determination. My schedule wasn’t under the dictatorship of my parent’s schedule, which allowed me the opportunity to learn how to manage my time and efforts. To this day my determination can get me up and going when I need something done my way, and I have always blamed that on the fact that my grandmother told me to walk myself from point A to point B if I wanted to do something bad enough.

Not only was responsibility and character built through free-ranging, but I also feel I had a better sense of safety than I would have, had my parents chosen to hover. If they were going to let me out and about unsupervised, they were going to be sure I knew how to handle myself in various situations. My freedom provided opportunities for us to discuss the common sense of keeping safe, and had I spent my childhood with an adult helicoptering over my every move I doubt it would have been as effective. I would have grown up with the expectation that my parents had my safety and well being covered, rather than understanding that I share responsibility in taking care of myself. When I walked through a neighborhood without my parents I was well aware that I needed to be cognizant of anything suspect.

And yet, I also believe that it helped me keep reality in perspective. The majority of people out and about are generally good, and I was comfortable accepting help from strangers when I needed it. Asking to borrow an unknown person’s cell phone at the library to call home when needed (which I did once or twice) is a far cry from climbing into the back seat of a windowless van. Rather than encouraging fear and over caution, my parents allowed me to have a healthy mix of common sense and a comfort in seeking help when I needed it. It is without a doubt necessary to teach  “stranger danger”, however, as we go through life we will find that strangers are significantly more likely to lend a helping hand rather than carry evil intentions. Had I been more sheltered I would have been less able to accept that help. As I grew into the person I am today I couldn’t count the number of times simple acts of kindness from strangers helped make my life a little easier, and in turn my comfort has allowed me to be on the giving end of these interactions . A dear friend and role model of mine once said to me that it is easier to instill caution than it is to get over fear, and I could not agree more. I didn’t start off afraid of the world around me. Instead I became aware of true dangers after I saw that most people at the library, or the park, or the public pool were regular humans. As an adult I realize that if something were to ever truly go wrong while I’m out and about, it would be these strangers who I would call out to for help.

But aside from the lessons and responsibility I’ve gained, the true benefit of my free range life was having a real and genuine childhood. I have been bumped, bruised, and my skin has been permanently scarred, but with each injury I have a history that I wouldn’t trade for the world. With my parents inside the house and unable to disrupt our activities in the middle of the woods with their watchful presence, the other kids and I shared a world that no one else could ever experience. No one could understand the battle lines of our war games, and our inside jokes will never make sense to an outsider. We trusted each other in a way that is incredibly unique among children, and encouraged each other to take new risks and overcome challenges. We developed teamwork and comradery while building forts and attempting the crazy ideas we came up with. We knew how to be silly, we knew how to be brave, we knew how to productively argue with one another, we knew how to encourage each other, we knew how to pick ourselves up when we fell, we knew where to find adventure, we knew how to make the most out of our carefree days. We knew how to live, because those were the first moments in life we were free to be who we were separate from authority.

Someday my son will experience something I could never be part of. He will have a world separate from anything I could understand, and there will be things he won’t be able to find the words sufficient enough to explain to me. My hope is that I can trust him enough to look out for himself, and that wherever we are at that time it is a place where I feel comfortable unleashing him. If I’m able to do that, I know he will learn things I could never teach him. They would be the type of things a child only learns while their parents are not looking. They are the things that will help shape him into the person I want him to be.

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