Talk About a Free-Range Childhood! (And 9-year-old Driver!)

Hi Readers! This cool note came in from the West Coast. I feel darn timid and tame after reading it. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’m a 47 year old lawyer, male, married 22 years, kids 5 and 8. I was born in Southern California but raised from age 2-6 in Guadalajara, Mexico where my father went to medical school. I remember riding the bus there with my brother who was four years older and it was no big deal.

My parents left us with the maid/nanny named Letty for 10 days while they went to California to work and earn money. When it came time to go to church, my 9-year-old brother Kevin drove us there. I was 5, the other kids were 5 and 7. Why did he drive? Because he was a far better driver than Letty and we all knew it. We made it to and from church safely. Our parents were a bit upset when they found out about it, but we knew that Letty couldn’t drive worth a damn and Kevin could.

When I was 11, my older brothers — 13 and 15  — flew with me to Europe for a week. The entire family had planned to go but my mom got sick and so us three boys went alone. We had a great time, stayed in hotels, rode trains everywhere, etc. The 13-year-old was a child prodigy travel agent and knew how to get us everywhere.

When I was 12, my 14-year-old brother and I bought week-long unlimited passes on Allegheny airlines, (precursor to US Air). We flew around all day just to fly on planes.   We made many connections through Pittsburgh and got to know the air crews by sight. The most dangerous thing we did was get into a tussle where chewing gum ended up in my hair and the stewardess helped cut out the sticky mess. We had a great time just flying around. Stayed in hotels at night.

Looking back, I want to understand how events appeared to me when these adventures happened. I wonder why these events seemed to me at the time like they were “not a big deal.” I think my mom was responsible for teaching us about self-sufficiency. By doing things we gained confidence.

I don’t feel like my parents were reckless. But as an adult, it gives me pause. I know my kids will not have the same experiences I had. Still, our motto is: Take Opportunities. Even a misadventure has some adventure in it. — The Lawyer

25 Responses

  1. Wurd! I thought I had it pretty good when I was 9. lol I hope he still teaches his kids the same value he learned. Even though in this day and age, no one would “permit” him to allow his kids to go on plane trips by themselves. They will at least learn self-sufficiency by other means.

    Where there is a will, there is a way.

  2. Wow! And I thought *I* grew up free range.

    I recently had an email conversation with my 75 year old aunt about free range kids, and she shared a story about her 14 yr old cousin who drove alone from Southwestern Virginia to Ohio, to pick up his grandmother. This was about 1950.

    In 1980 my brother learned how to drive a manual transmission car on this same aunt’s farm…when he was 10! A year later he taught me to drive manual on our suburban Washington, DC streets…just the two of us in my mom’s car, when he was 11 and I was 14.

  3. lol. My cousin taught me how to drive when I was 12 (he’s a few months younger than me). His dad taught him how to drive when he was 10. We never drove on the highway or main roads, just as far as the variety store a few blocks away. His dad got lazy of driving himself to grab cigarettes, so he taught his son.

    When we were 16 (with driver’s permits), he bought my cousin a car and we drove it down to Virginia. Mind you we convoyed with my aunt and uncle. But the whole ride down it was just me and him. Fun times.

  4. the matches thing sounds a little unbelievable. I mean, I only graduated from high school 8 years ago and we had all been using bunsen burners since 7th or 8th grade. I know in Florida I see plenty of goofball 14 year olds running around shooting off bottle rockets and making homemade potato guns and you definitely see the parents letting their kids hold a sparkler on the 4th of July as young as 6 or 7. I guess life is a bit sweeter in the hillbilly parts of the country.

    Everyone, get the hell out of the suburbs. haha

  5. I keep wondering to what extent the fact that so many of us are having kids later in life adds fuel to the fire. I waited a long time for my son to come into my life, and
    feel sometimes that it makes it that much harder to do the “letting go” that’s so very important. Not to mention, I’ve spent that many more years of my life being in control, solving problems by researching for an answer….

    Also, I have friends who had children earlier — so I know how fast his childhood will fly by…. I don’t *mind* hovering, or being a primary playmate. I don’t *mind* doing every little thing for him. However, I try not to do these things because I believe in what Lenore’s saying — he needs to learn, and he needs/wants the independence i had. But it’s not always easy….

  6. My mom said her 13 year old brother (she was 15 at the time) taught her how to drive a stick shift in the early ’70s. I’ve known how to drive a tractor since I was 13 and I started driving a 4 wheeler and taking it out in to the sand pits and the woods since I was 11 and I think I was 11 in 1996 or something, so it wasn’t THAT long ago. I was a Westchester, NY kid too… just took a couple of summers in upper peninsula Michigan and working in my grandfather’s orange groves in Florida to get me free-rangin’. It think my youngest brother who’s 19 now was riding his bike about a mile or two away to my grandparent’s house (after we moved to Florida) which went straight through our small downtown by age 9 or 10.

    Life was not simpler just 9 years ago, our town in central Florida was already riddled by Meth, gang violence (because of the meth,) and all sorts of idiotic drunk driving rednecks. A 10 year old is perfectly capable of avoiding bad neighborhoods and using traffic signals to navigate the the roads.

  7. Hey, you showed up on boingboing! I love it when my favorite blogs overlap.

    Anyway, this is excellent. I was just talking to my sig-oth yesterday about how being spoon fed fear makes us weak. Physically, mentally, and psychologically.
    When we doubt our own ability to complete a task, that’s when we seem to have the most trouble with it.

    I don’t watch the news anymore, and I find I’m a lot calmer all around.
    If I’m not being told that my appliances, my car, my furniture, my pets, plants, some horrible new disease, my neighbors, my kids, your kids, you, and the air itself is trying to kill me, I’ve discovered that I’m much more content. I’m not “ignoring” danger or being oblivious to it, safety is very important if you’re say, using power tools or crossing a busy street- but being afraid all the time is useless and self defeating.
    I am actually very interested in scary stuff. Catastophic climate change and filoviruses were the topics of the most recent books I read, but the information I absorb through reading is just that; information. It’s not a newscaster waving a book of matches at me and telling me that roving gangs of delinquents are out to burn down my house for kicks. Being realistic and being reactionary are very different, but it’s easy to slip from one to the other if you get freaked out enough.

    I remember an old episode of ALF (wow, I just dated myself) where he gets really paranoid about some random danger he encounters- which in turn dominoes into fear of everything, until he ends up cowering in a corner of the garage and refusing to do anything or go anywhere.
    Finally, he realizes that you simply cannot predict all possible outcomes, and that life just carries a certain amount of risk inherantly. He realizes that life is pointless if you spend it terrified of what might happen.

    I was never a big ALF fan (I like cats too much) but that episode always stuck with me as a really important lesson to carry with me- and something we seem woefully incapable of remembering when it applies to our kids.

    It’s great to know that this doesn’t happen everywhere all the time. My parents were a lot like this, and pretty much gave me the freedom I wanted- I was self regulating- and being (currently) nine months pregnant, I have mentally begun preparing myself for giving my child more freedom than most. Thankfully I live in a working class neighborhood where people don’t look twice if 8 year olds ride by on bikes solo. It’s a better environment (in many ways) than some WASP community where if you see someone who’s got a little color you assume they’re the gardner or a criminal. Sorry to generalize, but that’s how my city (at least) is. We’re known for being liberal, sure- but also for being very- VERY white. I think that lack of diversity(cultuarally at least) contributes to some degree, and that economic status is another BIG factor. Like I said, it makes me very glad to live in a place often referred to as “felony flats” (quite the misnomer these days if you ask me- like “Hells Kitchen”)

    As always, great guest piece. I wish I had gotten the chance to dart around on planes, but there’s no way I could have afforded such a thing- nevertheless, I applaud the parents of this fellow, and I wish the world didn’t expect us to be so unreasonably protective so that more kids could have done/ do this.

  8. I think we (my younger sister and I) took a plane cross country a few times with transfers before we were 10… and I took a flight to Germany with a stops in JFK and the Charles de Gaulle Airport both ways when I was 13. I actually ended up missing my family a lot that summer but I had fun flying by myself.

    I totally intend on giving my son, due in November, a similar childhood. Being fearless is such a commodity in this day and age. Good for you.

  9. cripes. that’s a little more free range than i’d feel comfortable with, but good for him, that’s a lot of adventure. frankly, i’d like to have a few of those adventures right now, lol!

  10. Esmeralda- I’m 9 months too, actually 39 weeks and a day today. I hope your delivery goes well!

    I agree that blue collar neighborhoods are better than WASP-y ones, as far as free range goes. I’m not sure if they are better in other ways, which is making choosing a neighborhood tough. I have lots of flexibility, and want to choose a place with lots of kids, ability to walk places, and few oppressive rules. All this crazy stuff I’m hearing makes me want to stay here in Baja Mexico instead- no one will call CPS on me here for letting a kid be a kid!!!

    Anyway- I love this story, and I can see being that kind of parent- in Mexico that is. If you sent your kids off like that in the USA today they would be shuttled to foster care so fast, which is ridiculous. You CAN send them on a plane alone, but I think someone has to be at either end to meet them.

  11. Staceyjw- Congrats! I hope everything goes very well on your end too!
    Yeah, there are some drawbacks to be sure (on 4 of july there were some teenagers actually *chasing* eeachother with roman candles, which are illegal in my state- lol- very very dangerous with so many trees)
    I *used to* find occasional discarded syringes, but since I moved here the neighborhood has changed a lot- but it will never be a million dollar home area- and I can’t say I’m sorry about that. I think it will always be “blue collar” on some level- even though now it’s less of a “crack den welfare” area and more of a “hardworking ethnic families” area. We are blessed with a big park two or three blocks away, where tons of freerange kids, families, community events, and independantly arranged sports games are. There’s a community garden IN the park, and an international farmers market 1 block from it. My neighborhood gets such a bad rap, and I’m kind of glad- it keeps out the gentrification, and keeps IN the froliking children and diversity.

  12. i remember being super jelous when i went to visit my cousins on famrs and they could drive!!!

    Living in the city sucked for so many reasons

  13. Heck of a story, but call me skeptical.

  14. Wow – I was smiling and laughing reading this guy’s post. My sis and I ended up on planes without an adult when we were younger in the 80’s mind you that’s when things were getting strict. We were constantly dodging our appointed “baby-sitters” and roaming around between connections. Never missed either.

    We were rough around the edges and played wherever seemed interesting – even in the city – but always in a band of kids. To me – even with my son, that is the key. Children will and do look after one another. Having children close in age but not exactly the same ages (i.e. always an older kid in the pack) creates a natural hierarchy that seems to work pretty good in our neighborhood which is lower-working class and very, very diverse.

    Something that has always amused me is how giving something a name like “free-range” validates it as a movement when it is something that poorer, working class and minority families have done all along (due to necessity and just different parenting patterns). The difference is their similar choices were often looked down upon as being disconnected from their children. The differences are so apparent especially when I go to a park outside my neighborhood. I am glad that more parents are embracing the free-range mentality if for no other reason than to understand that giving kids some room to roam doesn’t mean you love them or worry about them less. It just means you realize the importance of raising children who learn by experiences – both good and bad.

  15. My brother and I flew on flights several times to our grandparent’s house without my parents. BUT, my parents escorted us to the gate and my grandparents were waiting on the other end — and they were non-stop flights. Plus, a flight attendant chaperoned you, to an extent. No problem with that for my kids, but know I’d never give them the level of “free-range” this person experienced. To each their own, but this is way too far out of my comfort zone for me.

  16. “see the parents letting their kids hold a sparkler on the 4th of July as young as 6 or 7. I guess life is a bit sweeter in the hillbilly parts of the country. Everyone, get the hell out of the suburbs. haha”

    Okay, I have to finally ask this: WHY IS EVERYONE ALWAYS HATING ON THE SUBURBS? At the SUBURBAN 4th of July party I went to, all of the 3+ year olds were holding sparklers. And running around waving them while they were burning. And saying ouch a lot.

    Suburban neighbourhoods tend to be more ethnically and religiously diverse than EITHER city or “hillbilly” neighbourhoods. In the cities, people tend to live in ethnic enclaves –you see entire blocks of almost a single ethnicity, as opposed to the suburbs, where people are spread out and mixed together—we have at least five different ethnicities and four different religions and ten different denominations living in just my two measely suburban blocks. And there are kids riding their bikes around on the streets and sidewalks in the afternoon. And drawing with sidewalk chalk on the driveways. Stop hating on the burbs, people! Suburbs aren’t inherently evil. And cities and country lanes aren’t inherently better when it comes to free range.

    Still, yeah, I’m not letting my 9 year old drive a car in the suburbs. Or my 10, 11, 12, 13, or 14 year old. Because I’m into this law-abiding thing and all.

  17. I wish I could find the news link for this story – I will keep looking.
    But, basically an 11 year old and 12 year old girl were told by their parents to DRIVE. The 12 year old led the way in one ute, the 11year old followed.
    The reason?
    They were in South Australia and there were bushfires.
    It was the best way to get the children out safely.

    Driving is a good thing to know.
    I drove at 14 at night in the rain 40kms to get to the nearest hospital. Why? My Grandfather had a hypo and I used up all the jellybeans getting him in the car.
    The powerlines were down so I couldn’t call an ambulance (no mobile coverage out bush!)

    My 15 year old cousin drove 20kms to meet an ambulance after a family member had been bitten by a snake.

    If I live in a rural area I will be teaching all the young ones how to drive. I do consider it a life skill if you are rural.

  18. My dad learned to drive a tractor on *someone else’s* farm (where he was working for fun) when he was 10, and started learning to drive a car when he was 12. He is 100% the most component driver I know, no doubt thanks to all of that early experience. I’m just learning to drive now (I’m nearly 21) and although I seem to grasp everything pretty well, it’s very intimidating suddenly being behind the wheel in public areas.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think 10 year olds should be getting licenses to drive on public roads, but we do a great disservice to young people when we assume they will not be even slightly able to do something until a certain birthday. Skills like driving are best built gradually.

  19. Wow that is a great story! Yeah stuff like that, to me, can be constrewed as a “concern” but I still feel that is a concern in the “no big deal” category.

  20. No one commented on the unlimited airplane pass? That sounds like the coolest thing ever!

  21. BP, isn’t it the case that in some rural areas in Australia (and maybe other countries with a Driving Age) you can get a special license to drive a vehicle on your own property for farmwork as a kid?

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  23. I was flying solo from the age of 8 – mostly channel-hoppers, but cross-Atlantics as well. At 12 or 13, my first flight was delayed and I ended up missing my connection. I was in Germany, alone. I went to a customer service desk, explained the situation, and asked to be booked on the next flight (unfortunately, in two days’ time). I asked to be booked in a hotel, which the airport agreed to (and paid for, since it was all their fault). They also gave me meal vouchers to use in the hotel dinning areas.

    I then found a payphone and called my father. He was quite concerned and wanted to drive out to the airport (about 6-7 hours), but I told him that I was already booked in a hotel, and I had a new connecting flight, so I would be fine. After hanging up, I made my way out to the shuttle bus station, found the right bus, and rode to the hotel.

    The biggest danger I encountered in the entire experience was severe boredom. I had packed a book suitable for an 8 hour flight, not a two day layover, and the only channel in English was BBC (which, for those of you who don’t know, repeats its programming every hour). I had a digital camera (that recorded on floppy disks!), so I spent my time taking pictures from the hotel room balcony, erasing them, and taking more. Had I had a visa to visit Germany, I would have much rather have walked around town for a bit!

    So when I hear about people who won’t allow their children of the same age to go down the street to buy some milk at a corner store, I’m just shocked. I’m so glad that my parents gave me the freedom that they did, because I learned to be confident and self-sufficient, and not to panic when things don’t go as planned.

  24. I rode a plane by myself when I was 9 (1968). I was highly chaperoned, but enjoyed the hell out of it anyway. And of course it was commonplace to ride my bike several long blocks down to the local commercial street. Or to walk alone to school, also several long blocks away.

    My father and grandmother drove from Missoula to Chicago in 1940. My father was 12, and did his share of the driving.

  25. In Nebraska a 14 year old can get a permit to drive to school, school functions and work. It’s called a school to work permit. But many farm kids learn to drive far younger than that.
    I grew up in California and spent much of my youth hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The first time I was allowed to go on a hike I was 6 and my brothers were 8 and 10.
    It’s much harder today to be a responsible parent and allow your kids the independence they need to grow into responsible adults.

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