Why Free-Range Matters In the Long Run

Readers: Here’s a lovely essay from Chris Byrne, editor of the on-line magazine, TimetoPlayMag.com. Enjoy!

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE

I grew up before the concept of “Free Range Kids.” No, not when the earth’s crust had cooled just enough to support single-cell life forms. It was in the 1960s and ‘70s, thank you very much.

My brothers and I had lots of freedom – so did all the neighborhood kids — and of course we did things the adults didn’t know about. One summer, things went horribly wrong when we tried to cremate a parakeet. (Too much cloth wrapping. And gasoline.)

But we weren’t the “complete hooligans” my grandmother called us, either. We had household chores. We learned to cook, do laundry, sew buttons on our shirts and shine our shoes. My mother’s mantras were, “You need to be able to do things for yourself when you go to college,” and “You’re not going to grow up to be a burden on your wives.”

And that’s ultimately the point of raising a Free-Range kid—so he or she can be a capable, self-sufficient person. As adults, we have to learn to separate from our children. We have to learn the limits of our control and let them go.

Separating from the parent is natural in all the other animal species. Only humans hang on and sentimentalize childhood as something other than preparation to compete and survive as adults in a sometimes-difficult world.

Children need to make mistakes when they’re young, and under our care, and the stakes are not so high. They need to learn to win, lose, fall, get up, keep going—figure it out by themselves. I’m sure no parent wants their child to grow up to be like the 23-year-old woman who worked briefly in our office.

This woman – call her Sue — was on the phone to her parents twice a day. She broke down when anything frustrating happened. That’s okay when you’re in kindergarten. But when you’re on the job? Not so much.

Sue was a good person, but she didn’t last in our entrepreneurial company. Having been protected and bailed out by her parents all her life, she was virtually incapable of operating on her own as an adult. The real job of parents is to raise kids who can eventually make their way without them.

Not that the kids don’t still love them.

These days my mother has passed on, but I’m actually closer than ever to my 87-year-old father. When I visited him last month, we talked about the whole “Free-Range” concept and how well he and mom had done with us. His comment was a typically affectionate and curmudgeonly, “Oh, for God’s sake! Now they’ve got a name for everything. We just let you be boys and did our best to give you some guidance.”

For that – and for the chance to enjoy a real childhood (immolated parakeet and all) – I’ll always be grateful.

25 Responses

  1. Wonderful article. I hope I’ll be good enough of a parent and do my “real job of parents is to raise kids who can eventually make their way without them”. Very well put.

  2. Well said! I too was a “free-range” child before the term came into vogue. Growing up in Maine in the 70s and 80s it was easy to roam wild with great independence. And yes, you occasionally get into trouble trying to “cremate the parakeet” but you also learn from these experiences. And that learning is key to growing up and becoming an independent, well-balanced, free thinking adult.

  3. It is sad that “free range” is so abnormal that it needs a term these days. I guess it just takes more time to say “I want to raise my kids like my mom raised me because I think I turned out fairly well and that it is statistically unlikely that some stranger will harm my child anyways”.

  4. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a guy named Walter Lara. When he was three years old, his parents came to the US from Argentina and overstayed their visa. In other words, they’re “illegals” and so is he, even though he’s lived everything past toddlerhood in the US. He’s now 23 and until a few weeks ago, he was about to be deported to Argentina, a place he has no memory of and where he doesn’t know anybody. His deportation has now been stayed for a year.

    What struck me was that in any other developed country, there are hundreds of thousands of 23-year-olds who are living and working in foreign countries, who regarded moving there as a simple part of adulthood. Hey, there are plenty of 18-year-olds who do it, and plenty of 15-year-olds who spend their summers in a foreign country unaccompanied by their parents. But here in the US we regard what might happen to Lara as scary. Here we don’t think 15 is old enough to spend a couple months in a foreign country, we think it’s barely old enough to walk to the corner store (and parents are still thankful that their 15-year-old actually survives the walk, as if it was a space mission).

    I hope Lara is well-prepared.

  5. yes, to the real job of parents.

  6. I’m 29 years old, female and have no children of my own – yet I read this site daily because I work with children and families. Despite being a social worker, and seeing all the horrible things that happen to children first hand, I can’t wait to raise my children the way I was raised – “Old school Free Range”.

    The other reason I read this site is because I am often astounded about how few of my 29 year old friends, I could consider “free range”. They are scared to live in an apartment by themselves (something I’ve been doing since my senior year of college), call their parents to change their lightbulbs, and have no idea how to change a tire on their car – ALL of these which I do regularly.

    Lenore let her 9 year old ride public transportation by himself so that he would NOT end up like my friend, who just the other day refused to get on a perfectly safe commuter train and travel 30 minutes to meet me at my office. The train would have picked her up one block from her house and deposited her literally across the street from my office door. But when she asked some of her co-workers, they all replied in horror “no way! its not safe!”. I take this same train to work 3 times a week.

    I applaud all of you parents out there who take the risk and allow your children to fail and rejoice in their successes – I assure you, they will thank you for it someday!

  7. socialwrkr24/7: It’s frightening to contemplate just how much carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere, and how much oil we’ve had to import from hostile countries, just because of the fear of public transportation you describe. How are the overprotected kids turned adults going to cope when gas hits $15 a gallon?

  8. I am quite thankful for other families that see things the way I do , My 4 y/o dd made her own PB and honey sandwich today using a butter knife. The look on her face when she finished was priceless

  9. Mmmmh… I think cremating a parakeet is the one thing we didn´t try. We did manage to kill a couple of pidgeons with water balloons, though. As kids, we spent the whole Summer with our aunts, uncles and cousins in our grandparents’ country house. Seven adults and eighteen kids, ranging ages 18 to newly born. So not enough eyes to watch over everyone all the time. This was a big house, with a big garden right next to the railroad. Two deep water wells, a big swimming pool with absolutely no safety guardrail. A crumbling house on one corner (from the times my grandparents had servants). Plenty of trees and rocks to climb to. Snakes, scorpions, ticks, a mad dog my aunt somehow cared for… And fed-up adults who would crucify you if you wandered indoors and woke the babies up from their naps. Paradise, I tell you.
    Nobody died. Even though it seems we tried hard. Only one twisted wrist (my brother) and plenty of stitches (about five per capita).
    I really can´t imagine a happier childhood.

  10. What a beautiful article. I was just standing in line with an older woman the other day and she was chatting with me and my daughter (8). She and I got on the topic of just how many parents don’t know how to parent.

    According to her, her daughter (who she let walk to school in Kindergarten) and a few of her daughter’s friends were discussing how hard it was to get up at 6am with their kids. The lady in line with me goes, “Well, why is it hard? My kids were just fine.”

    The women said, “well how did you do that?”

    The lady says, “They knew they had to be quiet until 8am when it was time for mom to get up.”

    She then looked at me and shook her head and said, “I just don’t understand how they didn’t get that.”

    We talked more but it was just stunning to me that here we are with a grandmother who can’t comprehend why people are saddling themselves with their kids and not allowing themselves time nor their own children.

    We also discussed how dumbed down toys are… Lego’s all come in sets, and even Lincoln Logs come with roof parts pre-made… gone are the green slats…

    So sad…

  11. What a wonderful article. I find myself wondering how all these overprotected kids will turn out as adults. The parents seem to think the kids will magically know how to care for themselves when they turn 18.
    Just the other day on another site I read a mom say she doesn’t even allow her 14 and 16 year old daughters to walk alone anywhere…it’s just too dangerous. And that’s in the suburbs. She drives them or they drive themselves but are never allowed to walk.
    Another mom wrote about how she went to a fireworks display the other day and was terrified when her husband left her to go to the store. She was in her early 20s and absolutely beyond belief terrified to be left alone with her toddler daughter in a crowd because they would be so easy to just cart off. I’m thinking her parents taught her this fear. She said she had never been alone in a crowd before because she won’t allow it. Just sad.
    When I was 16 my dad told me to hop on the “L” and take it downtown (that’s Chicago for those that don’t know). I didn’t want to do it because I thought it was scary and dangerous. My dad just rolled his eyes, took me to the newly opened orange line station at Midway Airport (just blocks from our house) and showed me how to get downtown, where the library was and how to get around (the lake is always East…good lesson to learn) and what areas to avoid. From that point on I spent most of my weekends in the loop or at the lake…by myself. And nothing ever happened. In fact, with the millions of people around I felt safer then when I got home to my safe neighborhood. I mostly worried about pick-pockets.
    And this was all before cell-phones (it was the early 90s).
    Now I’m told by many people I talk to online that it’s absolutely dangerous for even a grown woman to ride the L alone and they would never, ever do it.
    I suppose, for all those people that say things are too dangerous for their kids that those things really would be too dangerous for them since they were never prepared to handle anything. For a kid who was never allowed to walk to the corner store alone or be left home alone for any amount of time then a trip into the loop would be terrifying and could be dangerous. But for kids that are prepared (like my dad prepped) me it was perfectly safe. I had been wandering around my neighborhoods since I was 8 so I knew how to stay out of trouble.

  12. The argument over Free Range = Neglectful vs. Helicopter Parent = Raises Kids Who Can’t Do Anything…

    We all need to remember that nature takes its course. We are not Gods who form 18 year olds from inert materials. This is what happens – they grow, and mature – or don’t – according to a plan that is not nearly ours. As parents we have tremendous influence along the way. But as parents we all probably have watched our children develop according to their unique personas and learn life lessons in their own ways.

    One thing I love about being a Free Range Parent – or whatever you’d call it – is I can observe my kids, trust my kids, and also *know* my kids. This morning I asked my 7 year old if she wanted to walk to swim team – about three blocks and two busy streets away. She declined. I *know* her, and I know she will decide to do this when she’s ready.

    A few hours later and I asked if she’d like to go in and purchase her own ice cream cone – I gave her my wallet with all my grocery money in it. This time she decided to. The look on her face as she emerged from the shop – cone in one hand, wallet in another – was inspiring.

    My kids are Free Range; you can see it in their faces – when an adult scolds, bosses, or shames them or gets in their business. My kids look the adult right in the eye and stick up for themselves, or say Sorry, or listen – they don’t look to me first. They are little people in their own right and I’m so very proud of them.

  13. Once again, the attitude that “public transportation is unsafe for lone women at in broad daylight” implies that the millions of women who ride public transportation every day are either “different from us” or “don’t matter.” Or that being in a crowd is “scary” (apart from social phobias and the like.) Or that certain parts of the city (apart from those genuinely known to be crime-ridden and dangerous) are “not safe,” when ordinary people much like us frequent those areas regularly to live, work, and play.

    I’m not thinking in specifically racial terms here, but there is something strange in the attitude that there are things “too dangerous to do” that people who are essentially like us manage to do day in day out, as a matter of course. Does the person who holds this point of view think herself so special, or what is it?

  14. SheWhoPicksUpToys: well-said.

  15. What a great article. I figure I’ve done my job as a parent if my son hits the ground running when I kick his a** out the door (figuratively, i.e., send him off to school or whatever). He turned sixteen this month and is expected to get a job before he can get his license, so he usually has to walk to the various places to pick up/drop off/follow-up the applications. Although his dad and I have driven him, or ridden along while he drove, a couple times when the heat index was 105+ and one of us was available. Unfortunately he didn’t take our advice to start looking before school got out and he hasn’t much luck since he started looking the day after.

    He has chores for which he is not paid – it’s his contribution to the family – but as he shows more responsibility he is given more freedom. He’s been on 2 organized tours in Europe where he even learned the lesson of what to do when he lost his passport in Italy.

    As a free-range kid myself, my mom put my brother and me on Seattle buses starting at 11. She gave us the map, fare, and instructions, including where to change lines if needed.

    The more I read this site and its comments, the better I feel knowing there are still some other sane parents out there.

  16. Kelly 8:45am: Amen to you as well. There is no right or wrong here; it’s what’s best for your individual child and family. It’s the open mind that’s important here. Well said.

  17. to SheWhoPicksUpToys: well said indeed. So much of what we percieve as “Free-Range Parenting” is the norm for people who don’t have the time or money to supervise and plan their child’s every move from cradle to graduation. I’m constantly struck by the class issues at play in discussions about parenting.

    At Chris Byrne: thanks for the sweet story about your childhood. I grew up in the 80s, and had a totally open childhood. My mom or grandma rarely knew where I was between school letting out and dinner time. And I got into a lot of trouble, but I also learned to solve a lot of problems for myself. Once, when I was 11, I fell in the woods and cut my hand badly on a broken bottle. So I changed course and walked to the local hospital instead of walking home, got my hand stitched up and had the hospital staff call my mom at work to pick me up. Where she was NOT arrested for neglect, or even scolded, just charged a co-payment and sent home with me.

    I’m raising my kids now in an urban neighborhood, and constantly doing that dance of finding out what their comfort zones are, and what mine are. Sometimes we’re outside the socially accepted boundaries. Last weekend we went to Walden Pond and my one-year-old got busted for breaking obscenity laws. Please.

    http://childwild.com/2009/07/07/walden-pond/

  18. I grew up in the 90’s far from free range to a point that it’s amazing I’m not entirely messed up. I was never allowed to play outside with my mother being there and she didn’t trust any other parent unless it was in one of my friend’s homes and no where else. That limited me because a lot of the time my mom would refuse to want to get dressed and go out so my friends avoided me a lot. I wasn’t allowed to talk to the neighbors since my mom either gave the reason for not knowing them or calling them “low lives”.

    I’m still living where I grew up and I have nearly no idea who lives up my own block. I didn’t even know one of my friends from high school lived there all these years. When we went out to eat, my mom always ordered for me so when I went out with other family, it was then I finally got to order for myself. In spite of all that, I am the type of person who hates asking for help. I would rather see how far I can do things myself and try to make myself as independent as possible. I guess what also contributed to that was that everything was a federal case when it came to doing anything with my mother around so the more I knew on my own, the less I had to deal with her.

    I couldn’t use much electronics like VCRs because she was afraid I’d mess something up and apparently end the world somehow. Meanwhile I am the one in the house everyone goes to for tech support today. I always had to hold a family members hand and stay right near them and touch nothing. I couldn’t walk home from school or get a key to the house(high school was five blocks away) until my mother realized my schedule was too different every day and no one would be home to let me in. I wasn’t allowed to take a train until I was about 19.

    My independence wasn’t affected but my social skills were in the end. I’m well mannered and a nice person and all but making friends is something I’m horrible with. I don’t trust people and tend to be distant from them.

  19. The ‘public transit is inherently unsafe’ argument drives me insane.
    I lived on the south side of Chicago. I traveled an hour each way to downtown Chicago for high school. Mom dropped me at the commuter rail station, took the train to the bus, and the bus to school. We did a dry run together the summer before school started, and then I just did it. Sometimes I was alone, mostly with friends, but we all lived. Trains were missed sometimes, and I survived. My friends and I learned every bus route in downtown Chicago, and knew the Loop like the back of our hands. It was awesome.

    Now my kids clamor to take the T in Boston, ride the commuter rail, and ride the buses. But some of their friends have never ridden the commuter rail, because it is ‘too dangerous’. These people are crazy. They somehow have convinced themselves that driving 30-35 minutes in Boston traffic and paying $20+ dollars to park is somehow a safer and more pleasant experience than a 5 minute walk to a 25 minute train ride. God forbid you should get out of your insulated SUV and *gasp* be in a train car with STRANGERS.

    Sorry, but this is one of my pet peeves. And don’t get me started about the people who are afraid to bicycle anywhere…

  20. In general, this article simply repeats what Lenore and others have been writing for some time. I do take exception to the author’s anecdote about the 23-year-old employee, “Sue.” First, how does the author know that she was bailed out by her parents all her life? Second, he describes someone who may be dealing with a very real anxiety disorder. “Sue” may or may not have been affected by how her parents brought her up. But the picture he paints of her does not match the likely outcome of simple parenting.

    I have been thinking a lot lately about the ongoing “Free Range” discussion. I am very much in line with most of what Lenore promotes. However, I am not so sure that anyone can definitively conclude that “helicopter parenting” is going to lead to a whole generation of incapable adults.

    After all, isn’t one of the questions at hand just how much parents matter? I’m not in total agreement with Judith Rich Harris, as I don’t think she considers early development enough. However, her perspective is worth considering:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=parents-peers-children

  21. Your right, kids have to learn to fend for themselves their was a article from a college proffessor that his students were calling there parents twice a for stuff like how to they make there beds!!!! He thought it was outragouse I also think so.

  22. BMS: do you mind if I ask how old your kids are? My 7 yr old has been asking to take the MBTA bus by herself, and I’m considering letting her. I lived further out in the suburbs as a kid, and I was not allowed to take the commuter rail until I was 15, and then only in a large group including several guys, going to a scheduled extracurricular activity (and the one time it would have just been me and another girl, my mom said I couldn’t go). I now live on a several bus lines that run to Harvard, Porter, and Davis Sq… while I’m not considering sending a 7 yr old to Harvard Sq. alone, I have been thinking about allowing her to go to the town library and/or the Boys & Girls club by bus/walking. Wondering what others, especially in this area, think…

  23. My kids don’t take the train/bus alone yet. They are 8 and 7. Within our suburb there is no need for public transit – a bike or your feet will get you every where you want to go. We use the commuter rail or MBTA to get into Boston, which I wouldn’t expect kids of that age to do on their own just yet. By junior high/ early high school I will probably be comfortable with them going into Boston with a group of friends. But it is also going to depend on them demonstrating more common sense than they currently do – they can be scatterbrained at times.

  24. Thank goodness more people are coming back around to this idea of “free range kids”. I too was raised this way and spent my days afterschool roaming the streets of our neighbourhood with my friends on our bikes or whatever. A wonderful experience that may not be as easy today, but is still very possible. I think it’s a real shame that people live in such fear. Real life and real experiences cannot happen in a state of fear. Two things to give your kids… roots and wings.

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