Who Says Mayberry Is Dead?

Hi Readers! Clearly, that TV town of uber-neighborliness lives on — if you let it. This mom did. Read on!

Dear Lenore: I just finished your book.  Before I found your it and your website, I thought my husband and I were the last sane parents standing.

We bought our house while still in our 20’s. We picked a nearby small town with friendly neighborhoods and an extremely low crime rate. Less than a mile from our house is the bay and farther north is a system of rivers bayous, and creeks.  We wanted to raise our future children to be Opie Taylor and Scout Finch.

It was 7 years before we had our daughter.  In that time, my husband and I volunteered for everything and walked around downtown often – EVERYONE knew who we were.  When my daughter was about 2 mos, I strolled her around town all the time.  The shopkeepers knew her, the librarians knew her, the mail carriers and police knew her.  When she was 8, she was allowed to ride her bike all over town by herself.  I would have prefered she go with friends but the other parents were too busy questioning my sanity.

My daughter liked to go to the bookstore/coffee shop and read magazines while drinking hot chocolate, go to the art gallery and talk to the artists, go to the park, walk around the toy store to daydream and even go to city hall and chat with the Mayor.  If she wanted to spend the day painting, she piled her supplies in a wagon and set up downtown  selling whatever she painted while she painted other pieces.  Occasionally the police chief would call us because tourists reported an unsupervised child and he apologized for having to follow up.  Since everyone knew who she was, I would get reports on her behavior.  By the time she got home, I would know that she made a left turn on her bike with out signaling.

What other parents didn’t understand is that my child is much safer than theirs.  If anything is off kilter or odd concerning my daughter, at least a dozen people will notice.  The sequestered child is unknown by the community.  How will the nice lady at the drugstore know when those people with her are not her parents?  How will they know if she is in trouble?

My daughter is 12 now and more parents are opening the doors so their older children can roam.  Now she has friends with whom to lunch. What I’m taking forever to say is here’s to Free-Range Kids.  We are not alone.

You can make a town small by getting to know it. PHOTO CREDIT: Katmere, on Flickr.

43 Responses

  1. Great story. Thanks!

  2. Very cool. I wish I had a town like that!

  3. That sounds like one cool girl.

  4. This seems a tad far-fetched.

  5. “This seems a tad far-fetched.”

    Why – its pretty much how I grew up and as far as I can tell when I go home, its still how most of the kids there are growing up.

  6. “Why – its pretty much how I grew up and as far as I can tell when I go home, its still how most of the kids there are growing up.”

    Same here. Heck, I and a friend ran a “summer camp” for younger kids one summer (we picked them up and took them to the local library for library-scheduled activities, sometimes to the park to the morning) when we were 8.

    And people paid us $2/hour to do it. This would have been in the early 1980s.

  7. My hometown of Manhattan Beach, CA used to be like that. Till the McMartin Pre-School case. Then it became helicopter parent heaven. I went to school with Ray Buckey (K thru 12). If you knew him and his sister you never believed any of those stories, and I still don’t. I’m glad I got out of there by then. Now the city is so kid-protection happy, no child gets to even be out in their yard without having the neighbors call the cops who, by the way, have had some really scary problems in their department, like recently some of their officers are under investigation for covering up a hit-and-run by another officer who might have been under the influence of alcohol. And it just one of many problems with being a small town with small minds about how great they are. Really sad.

  8. I come from a small country town/village that is a more than bit like this.

    My mother still lives there and babysits my neice and nephew after school a lot for my working brother. All the shop owners know her and grandkids as she takes them around the village with her when she shops or goes to run errands and so all the locals know the kids.

    One day off exploring they had a bike accident and one of them fell off their bikes down the main street. 3 different people ran out to help. By the time their Grandma had walked up to get them she found them sitting outside the coffee shop with ice on a sprained ankle, eating free ice cream as the coffee shop owners husband fixed the broken bike for them. He then ran them all home in his truck.

    I actually miss that sense of community now that I’ve moved to the other side of the world to a big bustling city I suspect I could fall down dead in the street around here and I’d just get stepped over.

  9. We live in a village within a city and our experience is exactly the same. We walk everywhere and everyone knows us. My son is only 3.5 but he is known all of the merchants. We walk to our grocery…our health food store…the hardware store, the bakery, the coffee shop.. the library. We have a relationship with all of them. They know us by name. It’s only as far fetched as you allow it to be.

  10. “Into the Wild” – are the parents like this because of the McMartin case? What, do these people actually still believe they are guilty? My understanding is that the McMartins were proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be innocent. One of the former accusers even has come out recently to admit that it was all made up. Wow, this really proves how horrifyingly evil it is to falsely accuse someone. God himself could come down and proclaim you innocent and it wouldn’t matter to some people.

  11. Wow. It’s so great to hear that sometimes things are good. Yay for you, your family, and the other ones in your town who make it such a great place to be.

  12. Oh, KarenW, people still talk about it sometimes like it really happened. And sometimes you hear “new” reports (generally urban legends).

    It’s like the Salem Witch Trials. Those girls, many of them confessed in shame and guilt, but by then nobody was willing to listen. You get so invested on finding the guilty….

  13. @KarenW, you are quite correct, some still are.

    Even after they found out the mother who originally accused the McMartins was determined to be mentally unhinged (my words) AND the CII (Children’s Institute International, who did all the children’s interviews) was found that their interview methods were innapropriate and created conformity pressures that are highly improper, there are still those that just will not believe they are innocent. One person I talked with used the “where there’s smoke there’s fire” comment. WTH?!

    Since I try not to go back there too often, most of my info comes from people me and my siblings attended school with, and during HS reunions. Many of them do not/cannot/ WILL NOT live in our old town because you’ll not be treated very well due to being the “old guard” or not having enough money to live there (houses run into the multi-millions now), or, and this really floored me, your “just not our kind of people.” ?!?!?

    I like the small town I live in now, and it’s just a few miles away. My kids love it and go all over by themselves without fear OR prejudice. Amazing how just a short distance can make such a difference in attitude, huh?

  14. @Debbie “It’s only as far fetched as you allow it to be.”

    Absolutely. I can’t speak for other towns or cities, but I can report a lifestyle very similar where we live, and my family loves it. My kids are 7 and 5 and know the town and townspeople better than much-older kids who get chauffeured everywhere and supervised constantly. It’s a wonderful thing.

  15. We live in Austin – just near downtown. We don’t live in a small town. But we do have that same feeling because we live/walk/play/work/school in our neighborhood. I really believe no matter where we live we can create this same feeling. Walk the streets. Say hello to people. Garden in your front yard. Set your chair up on the sidewalk on a summer night. Wave to cars. It is possible almost anywhere we live.

  16. to Joe who said “This seems a tad far-fetched,” no it isn’t. Everyone knew me and my brothers for miles around, and we grew up in Brooklyn!

  17. I love the bit about sitting out and selling paintings so young. Sounds exactly like something my daughter would do if she could just find the right spot.

  18. i didnt mean the knowing your neighbors was far-fetched.
    we know all of our neighbors.
    i was referring to the 12 year old stopping by to chat with the mayor and selling artwork downtown

  19. I haven’t thought about the McMartin preschool case in forever. It was a witch hunt.

  20. If it’s a small enough town, Brian, that doesn’t sound far-fetched to me at all.

  21. shoot, a when my mom got breast cancer, my aunt heard it from 3 other people (not related) before mom got around to calling her.

    I remember in high school, a few years ago, i got a flat tire on the way home, and before I was halfway done changing it, my dad was there because a few people had called him….at work.

  22. Love it! Sounds like the Winn Dixie book/movie. It’s too bad this is not very common with children’s upbringing anymore:(

    Encouraging to hear it is taking place somewhere!

  23. Where do you live? I am moving their immediately.

  24. Hi Lenore, I was trying to find an email contact to send you a link to this article which I think is very prescient. It talks about the “decline of free play has caused a decline in a sense of intrinsic control and intrinsic goals contributing to a rise in depression and anxiety in younger and younger childrn.” This especially concerns me because I feel my child (8) is showing these behaviors more toward capturing favored judgment and aquiring material things than developing her capabilities. I see her and wish I could escape to who knows where, since my family chastise me for letting her walk across the street by herself let alone be roaming around on her own. She rarely plays with friends (everybody is too busy and scheduled) But i feel eari;y threatened by the strange behavior of people myself and especially careening drivers although it does not make me fearful of being in public. But i fear for her mental health and this article just confirmed that. Please read and post. Thanks.

    Psychology Today Website
    Article: The dramatic rise of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents, is it connected to decline in play and rise in schooling?
    Author:Peter Gray

  25. I agree with pretty much everything you write about — we live in a small, rural town on a farm, and everyone at the hardware store on the corner knows everyone, and the kids around here roam from their homes to the gas station/hardware store and back, and people help keep track of other people’s kids somewhat. The kids have a good deal of freedom – more than I had growing up.

    I love letting our kids go out and run around on the farm, unsupervised. I like them to learn from experience about scrapes and bumps and how to be common-sense about taking care of themselves.

    I do have a question about one point of overprotectiveness that I get stuck on, though, and I really think it’s different — tell me if you agree.

    I don’t like letting my kids ride in cars with other people driving, other than me or their dad. It’s a rule my parents had for me growing up, and wasn’t necessarily based on dividing people into “good” drivers or “bad” drivers. It was my dad’s contention that his responsibility was to protect me, that the roads are unpredictable, that other drivers are unpredictable, and that he would pretty much change any plans to be able to be the one driving us anywhere.

    Is that irrational? To me, it doesn’t put the trust issue on the kids — they can’t drive themselves yet (and my parents let me start riding with friends and other people when I became a pre-teen and teenager, and I got my license at 16 and drove myself around). It’s weird, because I have the same gut feeling as my dad — unless it’s an emergency, I like to be the one behind the wheel when my kids are in the car.

  26. This mom is _so_ absolutely right!! I walk with my kids a lot in the area, shop at the local stores with them etc. — and feel that my kids will be much safer with everybody knowing who they are and who their parents are. I’m confident, that people will notice, if something is not right, if they are strolling around with odd people, doing things they are not supposed to, etc. — and (this actually is an evil scheme of mine, ;-)), they will react much friendlier to the kids just because they know me….

    Also I am confident that kids who naturally know their way around are much more selfassured in their behavior and therefore less likely to be victimised.

    So long,

  27. @esme:

    thanks for the link to that site. im very interested in reading that article and sharing it with other parents!

  28. […] Who Says Mayberry Is Dead? Hi Readers! Clearly, that TV town of uber-neighborliness lives on — if you let it. This mom did. Read on! Dear […] […]

  29. This is what I hope to do with my kids. Our weather is too snowy half of the year for us to really go out in the neighborhood much, but when the weather does allow, I take the kids out for long walks and chat with the neighbors. They hardly noticed me when I lived here for 13 years before the girls, but two little tots who look like twins draw a lot of attention. Aside from believing it’s good for the girls to get out & about, I want the neighbors to know my kids and watch out for them when I’m not around. Now that they are 3, I will probably start letting them play up & down the sidewalk on their own once the weather gets better. But even before, I knew kids sometimes sneak out when their parents aren’t looking, so it’s never too early to get them acquainted with their neighbors.

    I don’t think my neighborhood will ever be “Mayberry,” but I do think we’ll get closer to it by being free-range than otherwise.

  30. Brian — why is that far-fetched? I was on my town’s council at 16 and had already known most of the other council members, since most of them were also the store owners and I went to school with their kids.

    And selling paintings in front of a store? It’s just a matter of getting permission from the store owner/manager. It’s really not much different than the Girl Scout Troupe setting up outside a larger town/city’s Kroger to sell cookies. It can be even easier if you’re already well-known to the owner/manager.

  31. @ haelstorm: “I don’t like letting my kids ride in cars with other people driving, other than me or their dad.”

    I don’t think you are being irrational. Unlike “stranger danger,” car accidents are a very real danger.

  32. The thing about car rides is that while it’s tempting to believe one is a much better driver than, say, the parents of ones kids’ friends, I’m not sure that’s a realistic assessment. Doesn’t almost everyone think they’re a better driver than most people on the road? Riding in a car is reasonably dangerous in comparison to a lot of things we do. However, I’m not sure my kids riding in a car with their friends’ parents is any more dangerous than riding in a car with me or my spouse.

  33. It never occurred to me not to let my kids ride in someone else’s car. While I know that there are terrible drivers out there, I also believe that most parents (at least the ones I know) care as much about their kids as I care about mine, and they aren’t going to take unnecessary chances with the vehicle nor intentionally put anyone at risk.

    Plus, I don’t want to be the only one to have to drive my kids places that are too far to walk/bike. If I can share that responsibility with other parents, great!! In fact, as soon as my daughter got her license, I had her take her brother to practice that very night…and pick him up. It rocked!!

  34. Is it irrational to not let your kids ride in anyone else’s car? In my opinion, yeah, sort of. It’s not as irrational as fearing abduction, because car accidents are much more common. But for me at least, never letting anyone (even extended family members?) drive my kids would be almost as huge of a burden as never letting my kids leave the house. By the way, I find it strange that your parents were so concerned for safety, but they let you drive when you were 16. My parents made me wait until I was 17, and I think they had good reason – 16 years get into the most accidents.

  35. Our neighborhood is no small town, however, with a friendly little toddler, EVERYONE seems to know who we are. The staff of our building call him by name, his nickname at nursery school is “the mayor” (or “the president”), and parents of other students are constantly stopping me and telling me how helpful and friendly he is. Small fry really does make it a point to know people’s names, what stuff belongs to who in his class and where it is, says hello and goodbye, and also please and thank you. Not bad for not yet two.

    It also depends on how you raise them. If you raise them to be interested and concerned for people (and they see you doing the same), most likely they will follow your lead. I know our neighborhood is much ‘smaller’ because most everyone knows the dog and the kid. And this is before the kid goes anywhere by himself!

  36. About riding in someone else’s car – I’m not sure this will even be an issue for us, considering my kids will have to be in car seats until they are at least 80 lbs. I would be hesitant to burden someone with the hassle of that whole business. But I would not worry about the other person’s driving – unless I had a particular reason to.

  37. To vehicular safety:

    I don’t drive, and given that I’m a single parent there isn’t anyone else to drive her. We count on public transportation, cabs, and friends. So, yes, I think not letting your child in another person’s vehicle is overkill. My daughter is much safer than the average child when she is in a vehicle since most of the people who transport her are professional drivers who have had extra training. The difference between one person’s driving skills and the next is not enough to make a child safer in one vehicle than the next unless the driver has extra training – like professional drivers have.

    As to Mayberry not being dead:

    My daughter is -right now as I type – at the same movie theatre I went to as a child. She walked there with her friends as I did when I was a teen. She knows what business are still open, and she knows the owner of the theatre (who has been the same owner since I was a child). At 11 when the show lets out she and her friends will walk the 5 or 6 blocks back home. The only difference is that she carries a cell phone, and is more aware of her surroundings than I was at that age.

    She is actually at less risk than I was as a child becuase our city’s violent crime stats have gone down a LOT since I was a teen!

  38. @ Stephanie – loved “village within a city” – I live in a predominately-minority (about equally black and Hispanic) low-income neighborhood (the 5th Ward) in a city of 4.5 million (Houston By God Texas) that has a reputation for being a high-crime neighborhood. (Granted, I hear it was pretty rough in the late 80s during the crack epidemic, but that burned itself out within a few years.) The kids around here have a remarkable level of freedom that is about the same as what I knew growing up in small-town Missouri – matter of fact, I don’t remember the last time I saw a kid around here with a helmet riding a bike. Granted, some of the kids have got language skills learned from Mom’s fondness for gangster rap and impulse control issues, but there are a lot more who are surprisingly civil for unsupervised grade schoolers. And in the decade I’ve been here, I’ve never heard even a rumor of a stranger abduction – child abuse begins at home and could generally be stopped early on if Children’s Protective Services was anything more than a parking lot for state-paycheck flunkies with no accountability.

  39. @Jim – I’m from Houston also lived in Sharpstown till I was 5 then Memorial. Honestly I feel safer in the 5th Ward than in the Galleria Area – especially after dark. Doesn’t the Galleria have a worst crime rate than the 5th ward – but people think of it was safe.

  40. @kherbert – yup, the Galleria would be a much more lucrative place to jack someone than here in the Nickle if you were into armed robbery. From reading Der Kronk and watching the local segments of GMA – where if it bleeds, it leads – there are pockets of southwest and northwest Houston that are much more dangerous (even in terms of family violence) than the Wards. Of course, 3rd Ward has gotten so gentrified I don’t even recognize most of it anymore ($300K for a townhouse at Yellowstone and 288? I didn’t know crackheads had that kind of money!) but fortunately the housing bubble popped before the townhouses got to 5th Ward, so we are still affordable and livable. But don’t tell the urban pioneers – I’ve already been gentrified out of Montrose, the Heights and the Old West End.

    Some Saturday or Sunday when you want to have some fun take 10 to the Waco exit, go south about 5 blocks and take a left on Buck. Take your first right on Emile (by this time you will have already noticed the big onion and the word “FARMART” painted on top of the old rice mill) and park down by the garden gate. Last Organic Outpost (cool web site) which is a really nifty large community garden. Kids and well-socialized dogs welcome. Fun crowd, if you like nuts in rubber boots.

    So, are you one of those Anglicized “her bert”s or a good ol’ Cajun “a bear”?

  41. The idea of Mayberry is interesting and alluring. Not for it’s night life obviously, but for the sense of community you might be able to have with your neighbors. With my limited experience, it’s strange but I find the bigger the city I live in, the more sense of community I have. Anyone else feel the same? Obviously high rise apts aren’t the best, but a dense area of multi- family houses or villas seems to foster the atmosphere where you can walk out to the sidewalk and pick up a conversation about the weather or how the clematis is blooming nicely. I personally want to find a nice “mayberry” where the kids can roam around alone and it’s interesting enough for the adults not to get bored.

  42. Sounds just like us! We moved from a metro area where child would have had to be bussed or driven anywhere to do anything. We often call our town “Mayberry” for the same reasons as the original poster. A is now 7 and walks town to visit his favorite chocolate and bagel shops. We have a store in town, and everyone knows him from that. When he was younger (4 or 5) we actually had calls when we was walking around town with friends of ours, to make sure he was with an adult we knew about (since everyone in town also recognizes his grandparents now too). We knew that weekend that we had made the right choices for our son. Because he is the public “face” of our business, appearing in magazine, newspaper and website ads we’ve had ppl from afar ask us if we’re worried about his name and face being “out there” incase some whacko wanted to abduct him or such,.. and we just relay the story of him walking 4 blocks from our store with my best friend and us getting 2 phone calls from townsfolks making sure he was okay… we don’t worry one bit… he’s TOO famous! 🙂

    I wish more kids had the opportunity to live in a “Mayberry” setting with Free-Range parents. I know that if we still live in our urban setting we’d be Free-Range too… but maybe wait until A was 10 to let him stroll around unsupervised like he does now at 7.

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