One (Frustrating, Makes Me Want to Yank My Hair Out) Conversation At A Time

Hi Readers — Here’s a letter I got yesterday. It hit me in the gut because this woman just went through the same process I think a lot of us go through daily: Trying to deal, calmly, with the knee-jerk response of, “That’s too dangerous!” to any suggestion that kids can do anything on their own.  Read it and you’ll probably find yourselves nodding along. (Or “Grrrrrr”ing along, in my case. How very mature!)

Dear Free-Range Kids: I live in Vermont. Our region is rather rural and, in general, considered “much safer” than a lot of places. Yesterday, I was watching my children’s swimming lesson (indoor pool!), when the woman next to me struck up a conversation. She was there for her grandson’s swim lesson, and she began to wax nostalgic about her own childhood and early swimming experiences.

She used to walk with other children a mile or so to a nearby lake to go swimming. She remembers this very clearly from about age eight or so. She said to me, “Of course, you would never let kids do that today.” After a beat, and thinking of Free-Range Kids, I asked, “Why not?” She seemed puzzled by the question. So, I clarified, “Why wouldn’t you let kids walk to the lake today?”  She looked at me like I was just a little crazy, honestly. She asked, incredulously, “Let eight-year-olds walk a couple miles alone?!?”

I told her about your book and website. I don’t know if I made an impression. And yet, as I mentioned the saga about the middle school kids who were not allowed to ride bikes to school, she seemed to be contemplating the matter. Is this what it means to proselytize? — Kimberly Barnhart

Hi Kim: Yes, in the nicest sense. Go forth and spread the word! Or at least get folks asking themselves where all their fear comes from? Why do they think their otherwise wonderful children (and grandchildren) are so much more pathetic and helpless than they were? — Lenore

40 Responses

  1. Great job Kimberly!

    That kind of thing doesn’t work too well on my in-laws, who would rather I be more protective. They were the sort of parents who didn’t let their oldest play on the ground as a baby. I drive them just a little nuts by letting my kids do simple things like play in the rain and get muddy.

    I look forward to when I can let my oldest, and eventually my younger kids, do little things like walk to the store as I did growing up. She doesn’t feel ready to walk to school alone yet, so it will probably be a while before she wants to go further.

    But I look back and remember running all around the neighborhood and to the store with a pack of other kids. That’s a pretty safe way to go, and I hope my kids will get to do that too.

  2. The walk alone wouldn’t worry me but unsupervised swimming would. Signed, the kid who had to be fished out of swimming pools at least five times because she loved the water so much she wouldn’t get out when tired.

  3. Actually, having grown up on a lake, I think I have to agree that unsupervised swimming, unless there’s someone in the group who has is a very strong swimmer and knows what to do in an emergency is probably not a good idea. That’s one of the basics I learned about water safety. It’s not the walk that worries me, it’s what comes after. In fact, even growing up on a lake (and being constantly badgered by the high school swim coach to join the team) I wasn’t allowed to swim unsupervised until I was well into my teens. We could go splash around in the very shallow and tame creek without an adult, but no water higher than the waist unless an adult or approved teenage “lifeguard” was there and watching.

  4. I can’t wait until payday to be able to go out and buy your book. I think I am a pretty liberal parent compared to a lot of people out there, but I can’t wait to see what else I could be doing to become more of a Free Range parent and what other steps I can take to learning how to trust my 5 year old daughter more and more as she gets older.

    Pertaining to the article, I would let my daughter, and have let my daughter in the past while we were out camping with family at the lake, walk to the lake while in the presence of older kids (cousins who are over the age of 10). They have always proved pretty responsible with watching the kids and making sure that they don’t jump into the lake and try to go swim to the middle of it. In a couple of years, when my daughter is 7 or 8, and if she proves that she is responsible enough to do so, I would let her go there by herself. Let me point out, that the lake is within about a long block away from the spot where we usually go camping, so if we needed to get to them quickly, we could.

    Anyway!!! It’s amazing to me that people even from an older generation who enjoyed the freedom of being a kid, has adopted the fear that our kids are in constant danger.

  5. I’m helping Lenore to spread the word in here Houston:

    http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/life/main/6768255.html

    So far the online reader comments are mostly sympathetic.

  6. Where does it say that the swimming was unsupervised? I’m reading that the walk was, but for all we know, there was a lifeguard at the lake. There was one at the lake I swam at as a child.

  7. My daughter is 8 and we live in an apartment and on a day when we don’t leave, there’s not a lot to do outdoors here. When it rains, though, the parking lot becomes a glorious heaven for her, as she LOVES puddles and rain and getting wet and muddy. It’s been this way since she was a baby. It’s not freezing here, it’s California, I don’t insist on her dressing any particular way (except please, don’t wear your new shoes, wear some old grubbies, sheesh). Sometimes she goes out in rubber boots, jacket, carrying an umberella, other times in a sun dress and sandals (hey! you can REALLY experience the rain and mud that way!). She’s not STUPID, she knows how to come inside if she’s too cold. But I swear some of the neighbors think I’m some kind of crackpot for letting her get wet and cold. As if I were sending her to the arctic in a bikini. Except I have one elderly neighbor who chuckles and reminisces with me about playing in the rain when he was young and applauds me for letting her get happy in the mud.

  8. In my experience as a longtime serial friend-of-folks-with-kids, 10 (especially with girls) is a good age for can-be-trusted-with-younger-siblings. By that age, the kid is deeply identified with (and usually competing with) Mom and can be a trustworthy substitue parent for an hour or an afternoon.

    Re: swimming – one of my uncles was the metro editor of a daily in the Tampa area; because of the number of drainage ditches (and related kid tragedies) in their town, both of his kids had been thru YMCA classes that made them totally able to survive in water way over their heads before they were out of diapers. They didn’t even call it swimming lessons – the Y called it “drownproofing.”

    You rock, Alison, and so does Claudia! Great article.

  9. I am a fan of your blog (and your book). But I find myself caving into irrational fears all the time with my 7 year-old daughter. Like not letting her go to the bathroom by herself when we are at a restaurant. How DO you get a grip on reality and not spread “the world according fear” to your kids?

    Helplessly fearful sometimes…

  10. In today’s military soldiers are not allowed to go swimming alone. Seriously. Soldiers who swim without a “battle buddy”, whether that be your spouse, friend or someone in the unit, are actually disciplined. And going to a public beach with lots of people doesn’t count. There has to be someone there looking out specifically for you. You go swimming without a “battle buddy” in today’s army, and drown, you don’t get your life insurance! Or that is what they tell us anyway, not sure if they would actually enforce it.

  11. I am fortunate because I was already not a very fearful person… but as a parent, I was capitulating to the general, vague, “you can’t let kids do that” fears. As I’ve mentioned on this site and in personal messages to Lenore, reading the articles here and many of the comments I have gained a stronger sense of my children and my parenting hopes and fears and I’m proud to report things have changed for the better.

    I have the, “Why not?” conversation at least twice a week – with family, freinds, or strangers. Most people genuinely seem contemplative when I bring up my points. And my kids are Free Ranging like no one’s business. And it’s wonderful.

  12. As a Vermonter myself (although not currently living there I am at heart a Vermonter) I am saddened that the fear of letting children be kids has spread to my home state. I remember many a summer (and spring and fall, but the winters were often too cold) walking or riding my bike into town with or with out friends. Riding our bikes along route 7 (on the shoulder) without a care in the world.

    I remember one summer I think I was about 11 or 12 when there were reports of a man who was flashing himself to anyone (kid or adult) who was near. He was most often seen near a little run down bridge on the path between the local elementary school and rec park.

    I remember a notice was sent out to parents and it was in the newspapers. Parents cautioned kids (mine told me about it and word spread from kid to kid). My friends and I still took the path BUT being informed and semi-responsible kids we usually went in groups of two or more if we took the path in the evenings.

  13. I was just waxing nostalgic about winter sledding on another site. How the tracks that crossed over our street had a hill running right down to the sidewalk. When it snowed every kid on the block aged like 5 and up would get on their gear, find a sled of some sort (black plastic garbage bags work in a pinch) and head on down to the tracks. There were rarely any parents involved in the sledding. One kid would stand on the concrete support for the viaduct and watch for traffic. It wasn’t a super busy street but we had a few cars a minute. When the street was clear they would call out and everyone at the top of the hill would take off and race to the bottom, sometimes colliding into each other.

    The big thing was seeing how far you could go because you built up so much speed you would go right out into the street (if there wasn’t a car parked at the bottom and you didn’t aim for the light post). I once hopped the curb on the opposite side of the street and slammed into the fence of the house there. I won. No one ever got hurt or hit by a car because we watched out for each other. And we were mostly aged 7-12 at the time. This was considered a natural thing to do in the winter back when cable was too expensive for normal, working families and video games were just becoming popular.

    Even my dad remembers sledding at the tracks in the 50s when he was a kid. Now, according to pictures I’ve seen, they’ve put up a retaining wall there keeping the kids and sledders off the tracks. Sad. There aren’t many places to go sledding in Chicago. Of course, now, parents would have been arrested for endangerment for allowing their kids to play over there.

    Whenever we played at the tracks and got busted by the cops (because it happened a few times a year) they just told us to get down or they would call our parents and we would hustle away, only to go back later, lol.

  14. […] One (Frustrating, Makes Me Want to Yank My Hair Out) Conversation At A Time Hi Readers — Here’s a letter I got yesterday. It hit me in the gut because this woman just went through the […] […]

  15. As others have said, I’m all for kids walking by themselves or with friends. I am not for unsupervised swimming. As a former lifeguard and a current parent, my children will never swim without a lifeguard or very responsible adult present as long as I can help it. They can assert their independence and find adventures away from home, in the woods, malls, wherever. Just not in lakes.

  16. Random Chick – My 5 year old insists on going to the bathroom alone wherever we are. You just have to do it. If you can’t just plunge in and let her go, start small. Wait outside the door of the restroom while she goes at first, then progress to standing within eyesight of the door, and so on from there. I’m usually within eyesight of my little one when she goes, but if for some reason that can’t happen, I’m always within shouting distance.🙂 Hope this helps!

  17. I agree with the no swimming without someone responsible watching. If there is a life guard Great – but I’m from Texas and I’ve never seen a life guard on a river or lake unless it was some type of private set up – and that is rare as the Attwater’s Pairie Chicken because of how Texas laws about the public’s right to access water/beaches work.

    I thought life guards on an ocean beaches were a figment of Hollywood’s imaginations.

    I’m saying this as a very strong swimmer who has nearly drowned 2 times and was saved by a watchful adult/and life guard.

    The first time was was knocked out of a float by a wave and slammed my head into a sandbar knocking me loopy. Thankfully my father was nearby and pulled me up.

    The 2nd time was in a water park. A boy mistook me for his sister and jerked my tube out from under me. I slipped off, into the water, and was trapped under 2 other visitors who couldn’t get up from their tubes (they actually fell back on me). I was in inches of water but my head was pinned under. The guards jumped in and pulled the men off of me and jerked me above the water. That was the scariest because I was aware of what was happening.

    I have also pulled several people in distress from the water. One time I nearly shoved my Sister’s MIL and SIL into a pool because they were purposely blocking my way as I ran towards the pool. A young child had slipped off the stairs and was floundering. Instead I called them a nasty name and dove past them. There was a deck full of adults “watching” the kids and only my 13 yo niece and I saw the girl going under. Niece got to her first and pulled her up. The child in question was a complete non swimmer who was supposed to stay on the stairs according to her adults.

  18. off topic of this post but wanted to share that I let my 5 1/2 year old go into the men’s room ALONE during a supervised field trip to the mall! Go Free Range!😉 I think there were actually two of us moms that did. The other boys were with us in the ladies room.

  19. how funny, i hadn’t read all the comments and just saw the other bathroom comments!🙂

  20. “I thought life guards on an ocean beaches were a figment of Hollywood’s imaginations.”
    Not sure what the setup is in the US, but in Australia we have the Royal Surf Livesaving Association, a volunteer group famous for their red and yellow caps and teeny little Speedos.
    They patrol many of the major beaches here and ‘swim between the flags’ is a refrain most of learn very early in life. (Most Australians live on or near the coast).

  21. That simple question “Why not?” is so powerful. So many of the “safety”-related assumptions people make today are so absurd that they can only be sustained by not thinking about them at all. Once you look them in the eye, they don’t look so good.

  22. This is so important, to just keep having these conversations. Person to person is how a revolution happens.

  23. I’ve slowly but surely been talking to others about letting their kids be kids. My in-laws at first were a little worried, but after they came and visited and the kids were inside going nuts, they really came around. 😀

    It was hilarious when Grandma suddenly turned to me and said, “I think it’s a nice enough day… don’t you think the kids should go outside?”
    😀 One step at a time. 🙂

  24. Well done, Kimberly! See how easy it is? Just wait for someone to make the “we couldn’t do that now” statement and ask “Why not?” Making them justify their statement goes a long way towards showing how silly that attitude is. You may not have an instant convert, but you put a serious doubt in their minds.

    This thing may just work yet!

  25. After reading this article, I realized that many of the shortcomings of their own, I think I still have to study hard engineering, my ideal is to do a mechanical engineer, why Chinese goods are the cheapest it?

  26. I try to do this too, whenever I can. I post alot of stuff on Facebook to get people thinking. Good job Kimberly!

  27. I’m sorry, I must be really naive, but apart from all the yucky things a kid gets to do in a restroom where everything is too big and unreachable for him, what’s all the fuss about them going in alone???
    My kids are allowed to go as soon as they can do their flies without help, and they know they only have to ask for help if they don’t reach the basin on their own. Their father is glad, not having to take his girls in a mens’ room, or having to go himself inside a ladies’. Otherwise, how do people manage???

  28. Some people think that pedophiles, by definition, lurk in bathrooms, especially men’s rooms, just waiting to attack unaccompanied children and harm them.

    This is absurd for many reasons (chief among them being that it’s only happened a few times in recorded history), and I’ve never understand why they assume that some sicko who waits in *bathrooms*, of all places, to harm kids will really be deterred if Mom comes in with them, or why the pedophile taboo won’t affect them but the “don’t go into the wrong bathroom” taboo would.

  29. I’m all for my kids going to the bathroom alone, but as my husband discovered when he was at the pool with our daughters, although my five year old can manage everything by herself at home, at the pool the sinks were too high up for her to reach the faucets. She put soap on, and then couldn’t wash it off. So she came outside to her dad, who then had to find older sister to take her back in and lift her up to reach the water…..I’d really like designers of public bathrooms to make at least some sinks usable by a child, or make steps available. Instead the assumption is that there will be someone big enough to help them out.

  30. After reading this article, it seems to be that this “overparenting” thing is just a ….fad. But not a good–or at least harmless-one, like the hula hoop. It has crept up on us, that’s all, and it’s up to us Free-Range Messengers to spread the word one playground mom/old-lady neigbor/policeman at a time. Go Kimberly!

  31. Well, I don’t know about other kids, but I know mine would laugh their hearts out at someone flashing them, and I pity anyone who tries to grab them and take them away. I have struggled with them when I had to change their diapers (I can actually change a baby while she crawls and not getting anything dirty), and I know for sure it is NOT that easy to take them by force. At least, surreptitiously. And public restrooms are normally crowded.
    Respect is one thing, but they are self assured, so they won’t accept an adult’s authority when that adult misbehaves.

  32. @steven rushing – That is too funny – the Army will send you into combat but won’t let you swim alone. Do they also still warn you that if you fall asleep on the beach and get sunburned they will court-martial you for damaging government property? The Navy was big on that one back in the ’70s. Not sure if it ever happened but I saw people go to captain’s mast (office hours to you helmet-heads) for sillier stuff. Anyway, welcome home, my brother.

  33. Just had this conversation with my dad this past weekend. He was telling my husband about all the things he used to do by himself as a kid and them said in a sort of sad voice, “well, you can’t let your kids do that anymore”. My husband’s reply was “Sure I would. Our only fear is that someone would be dumb enough to call the department of youth and family services on us.” My dad was totally surprised and it started a conversation about actual crime statistics and invented dangers. He was shocked by the reality about Halloween candy.

    It’s a start!

  34. Go Kimberley!😀

    We had a Free Range Incident this past weekend, too. My 7-year-old daughter takes a skating class at a public rink down near the lakeshore (about 45 minutes from home by subway and streetcar), and afterwards we get hot drinks and muffins. Since I have a transit pass and she (being seven) doesn’t, the last couple of times I’ve left her sitting on a bench on the subway side of Union Station to watch all our things — two pairs of skates, plus my backpack with her helmet, our woolly socks, etc., etc. — while I go into the Via Rail side to buy the refreshments.

    Normally this takes between 5 and 10 minutes, but last weekend there was a huge lineup at the muffin place and the coffee place was out of kids’-size cups for DD’s hot chocolate, so I had to go elsewhere — the upshot of which was that my 5-minute trip took more like 15 minutes.

    When I got back into the subway station, DD was sitting on her bench happily talking to a nice (female) Toronto Transit Commission employee. The woman and I smiled at each other, she said “I was just making sure everything was okay,” she went back to her ticket booth, and DD and I collected our stuff and went down to the train platform … and nobody was molested, lectured, frightened, or arrested.

    DD told me that before the TTC lady, a “regular lady” had also asked her if she was OK. She told both of them all about her skating lesson and how she was just waiting for her mom to come back with her hot chocolate. I guess the “regular lady” asked the TTC employee to keep an eye, but neither of them seems to have scared or worried DD, and she didn’t move from the spot where I asked her to wait. “So you know what you just did?” I asked her, as we settled into our seats on the subway. “You talked to two strangers! And they were nice! And neither of them asked you to go anywhere with them, did they?” No. “But what would you do if someone did?” She thought about it for a minute. “Would that be a good time to pitch a fit?” she inquired. Yes, yes it would.

    I confess, when I saw the TTC lady talking to DD I experienced a flash of panic, of the OMG-what-if-she’s-about-to-call-Children’s-Aid variety. But she wasn’t, and she didn’t, and we were all fine. I’m grateful to her both for checking up on DD (how neighbourly!) and for not freaking out (how sensible!).

  35. OK: update. And a question about this “one conversation at a time” business. Just an hour ago I was with my youngest shopping for thread at the quilt store. The proprietress – whom I *adore*, she and I have a great friendship – asked about my eldest child (we homeschool so I often have the kids with me out and about). I said she was out and about riding a bus to the bakery and back home.

    So then the proprietress does the – “[gasp!] You let her out ALONE?” and I’m feeling pretty confident – because I really do feel good about our lifestyle – so I say, “Yeah, we ride the bus together all the time. She knows what’s she’s doing.” and the woman responds, “Well, I’m sure she does. But I’d be nervous about *predators*!”

    I’ve had the most success in conversations like this saying, “Yeah, many people really *do* worry about that,” and not saying anything more and listening to the response. Because usually people just seem to want to vent their fears. They aren’t ALWAYS (or even that often) responding to me and my choices, they’re venting a bit of that “world is a scary place” stuff they live with. (I’m not excusing those who perpetrate fear from their role in the larger picture of a fear-based culture, fear-based news, etc… I’m just saying that I have compassion for people needing to vent). So anyway, usually I just kind of bounce back with, “I hear this is a concern of yours,” type of response, and that seems to keep the friendship and conversation intact without going into a content debate – FACTS about dangers to children, etc. Which a surprising number of people seem not that interested in discussing (as I’ve also seen here on this site with some of the comments).

    Back to my conversation with the proprietress. This time I went a bit further and I responded by saying: “Well, I don’t really worry about that.” The problem is I feel like I came off worse for saying that. She gave me a goggle-eyed stare and I swear I looked like a mom who is Woefully Naive or maybe, Doesn’t Care About Her Children. I mean for all I know my worldview IS rubbing off on this woman – who knows. But

    What I’ve noticed though is that if I quote safety STATISTICS (thank you, Lenore and many others!) in a conversation like this, THAT doesn’t seem to impress or convince anyone… so honestly sometimes I don’t know what response I *should* have.

    (I have also tried the, “Wow, it sounds like you think you care more about the safety of my child than *I* do,” which also works very well – I say it nicely, not like a jerk, promise).

    Would love any feedback from the smart readers and commentators here.

  36. Kelly, I usually say something like, “I understand you’re not comfortable with that.” That tends to be the end of the conversation. For instance, my 5-year-old had agreed to play at a friend’s house after homework. So I let her walk there – about five houses down and across a dead end street – and told her to come back at a particular time. The friend’s mom walked her back to my house at that time and said to me, “I just want you to know I will always walk __ home because I don’t like kids walking by themselves.” I said something like, “Thank you for walking her. I understand you’re not comfortable with kids walking alone. Because you are not comfortable with it, I will always walk your daughter home if she plays here.” But I’m still letting my daughter walk outside by herself, in a prescribed area. So when they play, my daughter walks there by herself, and the mom walks her back. If the friend plays at our house, I either wait for the mom to come get her or walk her back. I think parents need to respect other parent’s level of discomfort when it comes to those parents’ own children, and everyone has a different level of comfort regarding different things. I’m happy as long as I don’t feel judged as an irresponsible parent, but sometimes I do feel judged by some people.

  37. Sky – Thanks for the input. That reminds me of something that happened with a friend of mine; she invited my kids over. I told her they’d be walking by themselves and asked if she was cool with that, and she was. She was also cool with her kids walking back. But – before I’d asked her, she’d planned to supervise the walk. I know she felt relief that I was OK with the kids going without parents… I wonder how many parents are making choices based on what they think OTHERS might think, instead of their own gut / intelligence / values leading the way.

    In any case, when it comes to friends, an open, gentle dialogue is best!

    And of course, with strangers this is possible too. This summer when my kids took the transit to visit their father at work for lunch, I got a call from another bus passenger. She’d had my daughter dial my number into her phone, and she was calling to check that I was indeed OK with my kids riding the bus solo. I said, “Oh, thank you. My daughter’s rode the bus before.” The woman said, “Oh yes, she’s very articulate and knows what she’s doing. I just wanted to call and ask you. I have daughters of my own.” I thanked her for her call, and she mentioned she was going to take the same transfer, and that she’d keep an eye on the kids (which I know the kids didn’t need). I thanked her again and said she was “sweet” for caring. The conversation seemed a good one.

    Long story short: I agree with what you’re saying: often I don’t feel judged but yeah, sometimes I do.

  38. During my junior high (middle-school) summer classes there was a guy that would hide behind the bushes and wait for girls to walk past him, then he’d jump out, say “Hi, girls!” and masterbate in front of them. Most of us would stop, then start laughing hysterically. He spent most of the day doing his thing… until he jumped out (with privates dangling) into a pack of boys coming from football practice! Major beat-down thus ensued. The cops couldn’t get there fast enough to rescue him.

  39. This happened to me the other day. I was talking to a co-worker about how, as a child, my parents would send me to spend my summers with family in America… alone. I was an “UM” (Unaccompanied Minor) on the flights, which meant that a steward(ess) would meet me at the gate, take me to the plane, and plunk me down on my seat. When the plane landed, s/he would get me and walk me to my parents. While I was technically unattended during the 8 hours or so of the flight, it’s not like I could go very far!

    Well, my co-worker was mind-boggled. “I won’t even let my daughter walk to the corner shop by herself!” I asked him why not. He gave the usual waffling of “well, you never know what could happen.” He talked about a couple cases of children who have been abducted. His examples were all from over a decade ago. So I told him about how the media works, how these things are so shocking that they are drilled into our consciousness because everyone talks about them, but that in actual fact they are very rare.

    “But what if it happens to MY daughter? That something is rare is poor comfort for a grieving parent. [paraphrased]” So I told him about confidence, about how letting kids take care of themselves a bit and do ‘grown-up things’ like walking to the corner shop prepares them far better for dealing with possible nasty situations. After all, I said, you don’t want to dump a sheltered girl at college!

    He seemed unconvinced. He was stuck on the “what if.” But the great news is that a couple weeks later, I came into work beaming with pride and told us all about how he was running short on time that morning and desperately needed something from the corner store. So he gave his daughter money and let her go ahead while he finished getting ready. She bought what he needed (candy canes, as it so happens) and waited for him outside. When he finished getting ready, he drove by the corner store, picked her up, and off they went. All he talked about for the next week or so was how grown-up his daughter was, and how proud of herself she was for accomplishing her little errand.

    Finally, a happy ending!

  40. […] Originally posted as a comment on FreeRangeKids’ post, “One (Frustrating, Makes Me Want to Yank My Hair Out) Conversation At A Time”: […]

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