Kids are the New ’50s Housewives (Stuck at Home “For Their Own Good”)

What do today’s kids and ’50s housewives have in common? Way too much, as I suggest in my essay for today’s Washington Post parenting blog.

As I point out in my piece, in the 1940s women were working in factories, doing all the jobs men did — and earning their own keep. After the war, they were suddenly told: What on earth are you doing out here? The outside world is too dangerous for you, you sweet, silly creatures!  We’re only saying this for your own good. You can’t make it out here. Go home!

Which sounds remarkably like what we are telling kids today. Kids who, just a generation ago, were perfectly capable of making their way in the outside world — babysitting, playing in the park, walking to school — are now being told: What on earth are you doing out here? The world is too dangerous for you, you sweet, silly creatures! We’re only saying this for your own good. Go  home! (Or, alternatively,  “Go to soccer practice, which we will drive you to and pick you up from.”)

Betty Friedan started the women’s liberation movement with her book, ‘The Feminine Mystique,” arguing that it is wrong to treat half the  population as less competent than the other half, even under the guise of “caring.” As in, “I care so much, I’m not letting you live a full life.” Moreover, it was driving at least some of the housewives crazy with boredom!

My book, “Free-Range Kids,” posits the same thing, only about children:  How is it that another group of previously competent human beings — children — have  suddenly been told that they’re incapable of doing  anything on their own anymore? Especially since, as my book goes to great pains to show, the crime rate is back to the level of 1970? (And it is lower now than it was in the rest of the ’70s and ’80s.)

There is no real reason kids today cannot be as free as kids a generation ago. That’s why, like the housewives of the ’50s, they  need a liberation movement, too. Free-Range Kids is proud to sound the trumpets.

And even willing to burn a few baby knee pads.  — Lenore


P.S. And on a completely different topic, I am about to be interviewed, 1 – 2 p.m. EST, on Parenting Unplugged Radio:

IM any questions during the broadcast to:

“See you on the radio!” L.

28 Responses

  1. Very good post. I want my kids to do what I was doing at the same age. Our local library reopens at the end of the summer. I plan to let my 10 yo walk over there by himself if he needs materials for school assignments. It is 1/3 mile and across one signaled intersection. At the same age I took my bike 1.5 miles to the library.

    I also get annoyed (but I also understand) when I see signs in stores that basically say “If your kid is under 12, he/she has to stay with an adult”. My kids together (now 10 and 7) can shop in a store w/o getting abducted, lost, or destroying all the merchandise. But I don’t think we in general let our kids do this often enough, so most don’t know how to act and will often run around screaming and taking items off shelves. And of course, the store doesn’t want to get sued if little suzie does wander out of the store.

  2. I recently found your blog, and I have enjoyed it, shared it and quoted it.

    I have not read all of the previous posts, and you may have touched on this already. I grew up in a small town. Each year my parents expanded the range I could ride my bike. By the age of 12, I could go where I wanted as long as I stayed in town.

    My children live in an exurb. The infrastructure is not in place for them to ride to their activities. As age-appropriate (they are 7 and 4), I give them run of the neighborhood, including hiking down to a small creek. My neighbors are aghast. I am sorry for their kids.

    If I had it to do over again, I would live somewhere that allowed my kids to bike to the drug store to buy gum, learn to pedal with a baseball bat resting on his or her shoulder, hike through the woods of the town park and stay out after dark to play kick the can.

  3. I agree with so much of what is written here, but what can you do when you try to let your children have freedom but every other child around them doesn’t have the same freedoms?

    We live within sight of our elementary school (3 houses away and across a quiet street). My oldest (age 10) wants to go play on the playground on the weekends. I don’t have a problem letting her go up there with a friend, but all of her friends parents require that an adult go with them. So, if I am busy, she can’t go. No one even lets their kids ride their bikes around the block. For Pete’s sake!

  4. I recently found your blog and am so grateful to you for sticking up for our kids. I think parents often do not realize that the unintended consequences of their actions. By trying to keep their child uber-safe, they are killing the child’s independence and self-confidence . The last thing I want is for my child to grow into an adult who is constantly fearful of the world around her and doubtful of her own abilities to cope with whatever comes her way.

    Children need to run wild. They need to have secret hideouts and special places. They need to explore the world freely. They need to be allowed to be children.

  5. I was hanging out with my kids the other night around the dinner table. I always like to instill some little ritual of either a high point/low point or an appreciation for someone or something or the like. As we made our round of appreciations, my nine year old son stated that he appreciated that I trust him enough to let him ride his bike to the library and the video store and other places on his own. So not only do we teach them to trust the world by letting them lose, we also let them know that we trust them as well! That’s a big message for a nine year old.
    Austin, TX

  6. I don’t have kids yet but some of the stories on this site (especially in the comments) make me worry about how hard free range will be to pull off. I’m planning to clean off my bookshelf and donate to the local library and I think I might pick up an extra copy of your book to get it out there more. I looked it up – my county has four copies. Not nearly enough! 😀

    I’m actually a little proud of my neighborhood. I see kids walking home from the school bus stop on their own and running around freely, playing made-up games and going to friends’ homes on their own.

  7. Hi Lenore, fascinating post. And just today I happened to come across an awesome Classic Sesame Street video today that shows a really cool Free-Range Kid in action, going out to buy “A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.” Note how young the girl is, and how matter-of-fact her mother is with her measured praise.

  8. I saw this and thought it fit with the general flow:

  9. Another parallel between ’50s housewives and today’s kids:
    Then — medicated moms
    Now — medicated kids


  10. yes I remember that “loaf of bread, container of milk, stick of butter” skit on Sesame Street. Sigh, those were the days!

  11. Bless you for this one, Lenore. This is exactly what I keep trying to tell people: that the way we discriminate against children is comparable to past discrimination against women, blacks, and other minorities. Our society has gradually concluded that discrimination is wrong in all cases except age, which remains the exception for no reason that is clear to me.

  12. Perfect as usual, Lenore. I was saddened to find out one of my 11 year old son’s friends couldn’t navigate our neighborhood on his bike. He has never been allowed to venture further than a few homes down. My son has been cruising our 1000+ home development for years, and I’m so glad I’ve equipped him with the tools to be responsible – and SAFE!

  13. CNN is running a piece this a.m. about a cold case from the 70’s (

    What’s the deal with this? Slow day on current day scary hype? Had to go into the archives to find something to scare parents about?

    Horrible things happen but it doesn’t mean we all need to hide. What we should do is the opposite. Get out, meet people, KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORS. That way we can all be aware of our surroundings and prevent things from happening instead of cowering and reacting AFTER they happen.

    Free Range Kids have FUN and grow up to be socially aware and responsible adults.

  14. Right on! This same thing has been creeping me out for years, except I was drawing a parallel to the 1800s “Angel in the House” image of women as these perfect, fragile beings who had to be protected from the hard, dirty reality of the world. They were seen as too vulnerable and innocent to vote, to own property, to do business or work outside their homes…much like the middle-class women of the 1950s.

    I think that, as with the treatment of women in these earlier eras, children are being boxed in and overprotected because the overclass – in this case all adults – needs a class of “innocent” people on whom to project our own fantasies about innocence and somehow cleanse our collective conscience – essentially saying, “I must do all these things I don’t like, or feel dirty about, in order to protect those sweet innocent souls.”

    Conveniently, having an entire class of people being essentially kept as pets, with their rights and freedoms restricted for their own good, allows those with power to use the resources of the “protected” class as they see fit. Children’s labor, creativity, energy, time, etc. is fully at the disposal of, and under the control of, the adults in their lives.

    It may not look like the kids serve our needs in this world of playgroups and enrichment classes, but in fact keeping children under our control powerfully protects the status quo. After all, all that constant adult supervision has to come from somewhere, and usually it’s women doing it. Not only do we keep children under control, we use the “need” to control children as a tool to control mothers as well.

    This has gotten too long for a comment. Off to blog about it in my own space. Lenore, thanks again for your bold voice and bright ideas!

  15. That is so so true the other day i was thinking about this due to a similar situation with my own family
    ….Im 29 and have been “in the street” since age 10 and doing ok, my sister in law is 23 and never in her life alone in the street, always babysitted by her parents…

  16. For many parents the worry about kids when they are away from home is too much for them. With technology today a parent is never far from their child even if they are out riding around the town like we did when we were kids. Cricket wireless offer parents options for pay as you go phones to help parents feel more secure letting their kids roam free the way we did. By not locking parents into contracts and leaving the control in their hands pay as you go plans give parents options so they can feel more secure in their child’s freedom without worrying if they have change for a pay phone if they happen to ride too far away on their bike to get home by dinner.

  17. I love your book – thanks for a breath of fresh air, for realizing that children deserve respect and trust, and for believing that the world is not all evil – that there is great beauty that our children deserve to discover for themselves.

  18. Kids need space to grow into their skin. Let them be!

    Check out my blog! I’m posting a new post on the hour, every hour, for a year!!
    I also have a photoblog

  19. Playdates are another recent invention in our modern “fearful” age. I looked it up on Wikipedia and this is what it says:

    A play date or playdate is an arranged appointment for children to get together for a few hours to play. Playdates have become the standard for children of many western cultures because the work schedules for busy parents, along with media warnings about leaving children unattended, prevent the kind of play that children of other generations participated in. Playdates are also arranged by destinations that feature child-friendly programs like museums, parks or playgrounds.

    The intention for a playdate is for children to have time interact freely in a less structured environment than other planned activities. Playdates are different from activities or scheduled sports because they are not usually as structured.
    Playdates are a late 20th century innovation. Playdates are becoming part of the vernacular of popular culture, and are a form of children’s down time. Most parents prefer that children use these hours to form friendships with one-on-one play or with small groups. With young children, most parents stay for a playdate and use that time to form their own friendships and parental alliances.

  20. nancy grace is one if the biggest and most annoying scaremongers out there
    we have cnn playing at work here to keep up on news for network issues and i hate it while her big giant overimportant head floats around for an hour while trying to scare everyone into thinking the next molester/killer/abductor/ is in the next room

  21. Oh, I love that Sesame Street video! Thanks for the link. I remember it very well from my childhood.

  22. Lenore, If you haven’t already, read “The Idle Parent” by Tom Hodgkinson.
    A British mirror to Free Range Kids is the Idler Movement.
    Have fun!

  23. In my very middle-class suburban neighborhood (sidewalks, trees, the whole deal) there is a woman who drives her high-school age daughter to the school bus stop and then has the daughter sit in the car with her until the bus comes. Every day. Assuming these people live in the farthest reaches of the cul-de-sac neighborhood, it is about a 10 minute walk to the bus stop, which is also in a side street with a sidewalk. Unless the girl is a frequent truant who often doesn’t get on the bus, the only reason I can think of that the mother does this is to control and (over)protect the daughter (from the evil boys at the bus stop? from the too-frisky girls?). It just seems too sad.

  24. You touch on an important issue here that goes beyond free range kids. Children essentially have very few rights. I’m not saying they should have as many rights as an adult, but schools are given the ability to abuse basic human rights. Random searches, prevention of freedom of expression, denying children an education through expulsion even for behavioral issues that did not take place on school grounds. But if a child does commit a certain kind of crime, he (usually) is treated as an adult! Children do need a liberation movement!

  25. Here in Oakland, CA I’ve been saying the same but not ready to let my 7 y.o. and mildly handicapped 9 y.o. off the leash.

    Anecdote 1) a parent in the neighborhood reports that their child was playing in their front yard while parent was inside the house. Policeman knocked on the door and warned parent sternly against letting child play unattended. Kid was six years old.

    Anecdote 2) my mildly handicapped 8 year old (last year) slipped out of the house in broad daylight, carrying a shopping bag, and walked six blocks to the local produce market to get a lemon. He wanted me to make hummus and I was too ill to stop at the store. We only discovered he’d left when he came back in the front door carrying one waxed lemon. Half the neighborhood saw him going by, determinedly, and everyone reported later that he looked so sure of himself, they figured he had my permission.

    I told him that I know he *can* go to the store by himself, but he shouldn’t leave without telling an adult. We live in East Oakland, people get mugged and occasionally shot in our neighborhood – but never shot at 5 on a summer afternoon. Is it safe? He was safe that time, wasn’t he? Ulp.

    Anyway, love your premise, will look for the book. Thank you.

    (and p.s. my Berkeley/Oakland native husband and friends report taking the express bus to San Francisco alone at ages 7 or 8, in about 1969 or 1970).

  26. I hate Nancy Grace. I’m 13, and I had a horrible time trying to convince my mom to let me walk a mile (If even that far) to the local library. She keep talking about Nancy Grace, and all the missing child cases on their. I know I have a “chance” of being kidnapped, but I also know that I have a better chance of my dad kidnapping me.

  27. We live on the east coast in a city (not a major city). Not many people let their kids out alone here, and the ones who do are treated like they don’t care for their kids. Recently we spent a month in a mid-west town of 15,000. It was weird, at first, to see so many children out on their own. On bikes all over town. Carrying tennis racks to meet friends. At the library… alone!! Walking down the major street with friends. At the pool alone. At first I wondered about it. But then I found it refreshing and magical. It shouldn’t BE magical though, it should be normal, ordinary. I hadn’t realized what was missing from my home town. Free range kids.

  28. All in the name of safety. Ugh. We went to a beautiful swimming hole last week where I’ve been going for 20 years. The kids were playing on a rock under a waterfall and jumping and sliding off. The ranger came around and said, “everybody off!” I swam on over and asked,”Is that a new rule?” Said he, “It is as of right now.” Of course I went off on my rant about the dumbing down of America’s children. Then I dove off the rock. And we all got kicked out.

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