Free-Range in Fiction!

Hi Readers! Here’s a guest post from the very funny Thelma Adams. You may know her as the film critic for Us Magazine and, before that, the New York Post. But TODAY St. Martins Press/Thomas Dunne Books is publishing her novel, Playdate! Here she ponders a Free-Range Childhood. — L.

Free-Range Children by Thelma Adams

I didn’t grow up Free-Range. We lived on a San Diego cul-de-sac surrounded by hilly miles of sidewalk going pretty much nowhere. Civilization – the Woolworth’s! — was a car ride away. Until the very first day one of my friends got a driver’s license, I stuck close to home.

In my novel, Playdate, the stay-at-home father is more nostalgic than me for his youth — an era that now walks with the dinosaurs:

Lance wondered what had happened to the free-range children of his childhood. During those New Jersey summers when he was growing up, the local kids had gathered on the double-wide lawn that sloped from his house to the neighbor’s: a soccer field, a baseball diamond, a slip ‘n slide dream….The games attracted kids from four to fourteen, although occasionally the teens would pair off and disappear to fondle each other in the woods beyond, away from their parents’ prying eyes, and still within hearing distance of the Ollie Ollie oxen frees, the parents’ final calls once the ten o’clock news of slaughter and baseball scores had run its course.

While this memory is pure fiction, my husband’s desire to raise our kids Free-Range was one of the many reasons that prompted us to leave a cozy corner of Brooklyn for a 15 acre park-load of property in upstate New York. He extolled the virtues of a childhood spent running around outside without worrying about kid-snatchers. Kids need that, he argued: the ability to run on grass, hop on a bike and explore, climb a tree, build a fort in the woods. OK, he convinced me.

What we never anticipated was that in Dutchess County, parents live in fear of something else! Deer ticks. Before the kids go outside into that beautiful pine forest that looks like the entrance to Narnia, they need to be sprayed from head to foot and covered in long pants and long sleeves, high socks and shoes. Upon their return, they must be checked for the teeny tiny Lyme disease carriers with more attention than a TSA agent gives to a twitchy, 20-something male with a last-minute, one-way ticket he paid for in cash. Trust me: it really puts a damper on the whole outdoor picnic.

At least if the kids were free-range chickens, they could peck those ticks and eat them for lunch. Oh, well, the best-laid plans. We have a really beautiful view, lots of lawn to mow, Bambi (+ blood-sucking parasites) frolicking outside — and kids as plugged in to TV, X-box and computer as any sidewalk-bound slug.

31 Responses

  1. I am getting sooooo tired of the tick paranoia.
    Yes, I live in lyme disease country. But for heaven’s sake, a tick isn’t an instant death sentence. They need to be on for 24 hours to transmit the disease. Most kids who have been tromping through the woods need a bath afterward. Give them a look over in the bath and comb through their hair with a fine comb if you are concerned. Done. My son had a tick last summer. I called the doctor, they said to watch the spot, told me what to look for, and to bring him in if anything changed. The disease is nasty, but treatable. We don’t have to act like ticks are the same as cobras.

  2. Oh but what if? What if!? What if!??!

  3. BMS, the disease is treatable–but the longer left untreated, the worse it can be. Vigilance w/o paranoia is the key.

    But high socks & shoes on a hot & humid summer day? Talk about a fun-killer!

  4. I used to live in Northwestern Pennsylvania, not far from the New York State border. It was tick country there, too, but dealing with them was simple – give your legs a once-over with your eyes and a broom (gets the loose dirt off, too), and you’re generally golden. If you’ve been camping, give your whole body a look over.

    Ticks tend to stand out if you’re not a Yeti.

  5. For a few thousand years (at least), humans have been frolicking in the woods with little to no adverse side affects. Why all the hoopla now? If its not safe outside and its not safe inside… Does that mean its even safe to have kids at all??? What next, K-Mart selling bubble balls (with built-in GPS) for every child?

  6. What always interests me with this little anecdotes is how almost everyone says they left the city so that their kids could be free-range as if the city is this hotbed of abductors. I grew up in Chicago and raised my kids there until recently. And, although I LOVE our little town in WA, there was nothing wrong with the city. Obviously, not every are of the city is free-range friendly but it isn’t all the ghetto either. My kids were just as free-range in Chicago as they are here. I never thought twice about letting them run around outside until it got dark.
    And a major plus: there were always other people around, lots of them, neighbors peeking out to see what the noise is and they weren’t off calling DCFS. They were the kind that had no problem yelling out, “I know where you live and I’ll tell your mother on you!” when they saw a kid doing something wrong.
    Although my kids run all over around here as do all their little friends there are rarely other people out. Most of the adults in the neighborhood are inside so there isn’t really anyone watching. I still don’t worry, though. The kids look out for each other (the range in age from 4–my youngest to 11–my dd’s friends). When one of the neighborhood boys hit my dd’s friend after school on Friday the kids banded together. They walked her home and told her mother what happened and then her mother went to the other kids’ house to talk to his mother. End of story. The parents worked it out, the kid apologized and life went on. There was no crisis, the police weren’t called, CPS wasn’t involved.
    The kids around here don’t worry about kidnappers or the such but snakes…those are a worry. It’s pretty rural around the town so they are a hazard. They’ve learned to watch where they step in tall grass.

  7. We can’t protect our kids from everything…and shouldn’t! If my boys fall out of a tree and bust an arm, at least I know they were having fun (and might be a little more observant next time).

    Ticks with Lyme are actually pretty rare. Here in MO, when we Soldiers are out training, if we get a tick we are supposed to bring it to the aid station so it can be tested. In the last 6 years, I know of 2 cases of Soldiers who have gotten Lyme disease from the thousands of ticks we’ve gotten in the field.

    So no need to let paranoia get the better of you. And if that doesn’t help, buy some DEET.

  8. At least ticks are a “REAL” danger, although a very mild one. Living in a very wooded area, I have had more than my share of ticks on me and even more so on my pets. I must have a slight allergy to the damn things, since every time I’ve had a tick bite me it has gotten itchy and red, like a bad mosquito bite. I’ve always known what to look for, and had a few checked at the doctor when they started looking bad. Never been a problem with lyme in this area, though. A tick, though, IS LIKELY to happen to a child running in the woods a lot in certain parts of the country, unlike sexual predators and other crime, which is unlikely in most parts of the country. What we had to watch for more than anything was where we put our hands and feet, since snake bites were more common, and could be a real problem since we have rattlers, copperheads and water moccasins. Even at that, my parents didn’t keep us out of the woods, they just showed us how to not make a snake angry.

    I do think that the level of paranoia in this post shows that helicopter parents exist in every part of the country. Some people worry about sexual predators, some people worry about blood-sucking insects. It’s all still a case of excessive worry.

  9. The problem with the ticks that carry Lyme and other diseases is that they are often so small they go unnoticed. My daughter (she was 2) and I (2 times) both have had Lyme and were fine once we took antibiotics. However, doctor’s are often uneducated about Lyme and don’t test for it properly. The comprehensive test (Western Blot) is expensive and around here rather than a test we are given antibiotics. Which, of course is fine if you don’t mind taking antibiotics every time you think you are bitten by a deer tick. What makes matters worse is that no one I know has developed the “typical” bullseye rash that is indicative of Lyme.

    A friend’s Lyme went untreated for a month because the 2 Lyme tests came back negative. She lost the use of one arm and the doctors thought she had had a stroke (she was 18-19 at the time and extremely active and healthy). She insited that she had Lyme and they finally gave her antibiotics. But by this time she was so sick that she had to take the antibiotics intravenously.

    My 20 yo nephew was undiagnosed for weeks and was told he had a heart condition/possible heart attack.

    Another friend told her doctor over and over that she had Lyme but she was ignored because of negative tests until she couldn’t get out of bed and insisted on a Western Blot. Yes, she had it.

    Read author Amy Tan’s (hopefully unusual)experience with Lyme to learn more. http://www.canlyme.com/amy.html

    We haven’t moved from our woodsy home and we still play outside alot even though there are far more disease carrying ticks in this area than there are sexual predators. Still, we’re not cavalier about Lyme.

  10. Why must everything everyone does that is differently from long ago be considered anti-free range? It’s not like these kids are told never to play outside. They just need to be careful about tics and get checked for them when they come inside.

    Lyme disease affects 20,000 people a year, so it is a real threat. Free rangers support the wearing of bicycle helmets to prevent accident fatalities, why wouldn’t you support the prevention of Lyme disease?

    People are pretty cavalier about it being treatable. But, there are side effects to treatment and it is not always easy to treat.

    I have had fourth month of antibiotics — one two-month course this summer and the second two-month course began in December after my blood test came back positive again.

    I spent the summer trying my best to stay out of the sun because the antibiotics made me overly sensitive to the sun. I am sure my daughter would rather have me check her over for tics every day than have to spend the summer out of the sun.

    I think many of the people in this group automatically go to the fear mongering reason when presented with something. Perhaps you can think of this as a rational response to prevent an illness and not someone’s fear and paranoia about a dreaded disease.

    (just so you know — I never saw the tic. I saw the bulls-eye and began treatment within a day and still had to take a second course of antiobiotics. Not everyone sees the bulls-eye rash and their treatment is delayed until they start showing other symptoms.)

    Some stats: http://www.idsociety.org/lymediseasefacts.htm

  11. Boots and socks for running through the bush (woods) is standard and not to much to ask a kid to wear. I do not know about lyme disease from ticks because we don’t have it. I wouldn’t keep my kids inside or done up in a space bubble. There would be just a ritual of looking for them at the of the day.

  12. Unfortunately, by the time we do a tick check it can be too late or the tick can be too small to be seen. the deer tick carries and transmits the diseases before it is full grown.

    Secondly, one does not have to be out in the woods to get bitten. And I do not make my kids wear the standard Lyme prevention gear to play in the yard. Nor do they wear deet to play in the yard for a short time. However, that’s all the time it takes to get bitten.

  13. When I was 9, we moved out to the country, and I found out what ticks were. Yeah, we had to be sprayed (with Deet!), and checked, and we got to enjoy having the ticks burned off of us (which my parents insisted was the only way to kill them!), but we didn’t let it stop our fun. Wood ticks, deer ticks, and the mosquitoes! I remember the town giving notice about a day where we’d all have to stay indoors, and they’d use the crop-dusting planes to spray for mosquitoes over the entire county. Our area had a bad mosquito problem. Still does. There have been multiple EEE cases, and a few deaths in the last several years, usually kids who play organized sports that practice late.
    All you can do is bring on the bug spray!! I buy the Avon bug-guard plus, which is a lotion and also has sunscreen in it. It’s always worked for me. And I treat my pets, too. Most of the ticks I find are on them, and they are harder to check, so by keeping them clean, my kids are less likely to get a tick when they aren’t outside.

  14. Is it really free-range to expect ones children to “pair off and disappear to fondle each other in the woods beyond”? The oldest children mentioned in that paragraph where 14; that means they’re in middle school.

    I’ve been mulling over the idea of going free-range (my oldest turned two this week, so I haven’t felt too much pressure to decide just yet). But if going being free range means being okay with children fondling each other, free-range is not for me.

  15. NOt being paranoid about Lyme disease does not equal being cavalier about it.

    If it is, as some seem to imply, completely undetectable until it is too late, (because we can’t see the tick, the bite isn’t typical, etc.) then all the vigilance in the world won’t matter, will it? So is the solution to not go outside? No, the solution is to wear bug spray, take reasonable precautions (checking for visible ticks, going to the doctor if you get wierd symptoms), but as with many things in this world, accept that something bad MIGHT happen, and you can’t necessarily prevent it.

    Plus 20,000 cases of Lyme? Out of a population of x Million? Again, not something I have to worry about to the point that I am dipping my kids in DDT and covering them in plastic wrap before their feet touch grass.

  16. If you are concerned about ticks (and if you live in the country), get a couple of guineas. They are homely and can be noisy (very good watchdogs, they alert when strangers come around or when large animals/ hawks pass by), but they are the BEST tick preventative I’ve found. And if you don’t know what they are, google them, lol. They are a type of poultry from Africa, similar size to a chicken but with a bald, funky looking head and a loud alert cry. They walk through the grass and tall weeds looking for small bugs to eat, and ticks are a delicacy to them.

    We moved into our house 10 years ago. The first year, our dogs were COVERED with ticks. The second year, I bought a few guineas and let them run. Since then, the only times my dogs have had ticks were when we let them run the creek, out of the guineas’ range. My children have had one tick apiece, again when they were beyond where the guineas patrolled. My husband doesn’t care for the birds, but I won’t be without them!😉

  17. “For a few thousand years (at least), humans have been frolicking in the woods with little to no adverse side affects. Why all the hoopla now? ”

    A NY Times article answers that very question:

    “suburban and rural home development causes fragmentation of forests, fostering a population explosion among white-footed mice, the main carrier of the disease-causing bacteria. The mice themselves are harmless, but blacklegged ticks feed on the rodents and can transmit the bacteria to humans. ………. And the researchers [these researchers were in Dutchess County, NY] found that in smaller forest patches, as many as 80 percent of the ticks were infected. ”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/08/science/3-br-forest-vu-may-have-added-feature-lyme-disease-risk.html

  18. I had lyme disease, from deer ticks in my own back yard. Since then I take more precautions – I still don’t force the kids to wear the full protective kit and bug spray every time they go in the yard, but we do a “tick-check” when they come in, and again at bath time. Tick check has to be by sight and touch, since deer-ticks are so small. It does take 24 hours for a deer tick to spread lyme into your body, and then the tick will be fat and engorged. So plenty of time to get them off you first. So far the kids have had several ticks, but none engorged and no lyme.

  19. @ Elizabeth Ann, if a couple of 14 yr olds want to fondle they will find a place to do it. Same for 6yr olds and 7yr olds and 8 yr olds, etc. I don’t think that has anything to do with free ranging.

    As for ticks, they scare the hell out of me. I have known 2 people with late stage Lyme and it is horrific. Still, as those above have noted, some vigilance, attention and a good relationship with your dr go a long way in preventing a long-term Lyme infection.

    I LOATHE ticks and have even considered guinea fowl to help ease my mind (despite their sleep-in killing squawking, and I know of squawking) but try hard not to let it dampen the kids’ enthusiasm for being out in our woods (or any woods.) Learn the basics of tick bite prevention, learn the seasons in your area when you must be more vigilant, get a squawky bird, whatever lessens the risks in your situation and then set those kids free!

    Wait a minute! If kids do their own tick check on each other: fondling!! It’s a free range two-fer!

  20. @crowjoy,

    I had not meant in my comment that children who want to fondle each other could not find a place to do so. What I meant was that I am shocked by the complacency some free-range parents have about this type of behavior. It is truly sick to think about six-year-olds fondling each other, and I do not understand how you can mention it in such a cavalier way. That is precisely what I was concerned about.

    Your argument could be used for a whole host of other activities. Yes, teens can find a way to abuse drugs or alcohol, but shouldn’t their parents at least be making the effort to help them make better decisions?

  21. That’s an interesting comparison that I think says more about your point of view than free range parenting.

    Where 6 yr olds checking out each others’ parts is developmentally normal (and yes I fail to understand why that would be sick… though I’m sure we’d agree that it is sick if an adult fondles a kid) using alcohol or drugs is not a normal developmental milestone for a child.

    Free ranging (IMO) is about understanding your kid enough to age-appropriately prepare him/her for life as an adult. Give them the rules, give them the tools and then give them the support they need if they learn something the hard way.

    So, where I wouldn’t send my kids out “Have fun fondling the neighbors! See you at dinner!” if I found out they were doing some “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” I would not freak out. We would talk about what happened and why and get on with life, making adjustments to our rules and tools as needed. But in no way would I make them think they are sick or wrong for being curious about bodies.

    Because that, along with bruised knees and getting lost and having to talk to strangers andandand are just part of growing up. Or should be.

    It’s when adults sexualize the activities of children that normal experiences become perverted.

  22. If you don’t live in a Lyme disease-prone area, you may not understand the seriousness of it. I live in Upstate NY and it is EVERYWHERE – I know several people every year who are diagnosed despite precautions. And the ticks that carry Lyme are very small – much different from the ticks down South that I get when visiting my husband’s family farm. So please don’t pooh-pooh it. As someone sensibly pointed out, this is an area where being free-range means taking sensible precautions when going outside, not keeping your kids from going out.

    And the reader above who said doctors are uneducated about it is also correct. Our pediatrician is of the opinion, based on what she has seen in her practice, that it is a much bigger threat in our area than last year’s swine flu was or other ailments that get more press. After seeing lots of kids in her practice with Lyme (and there are serious side affects if not caught right away), she’s done a bunch of research, and is presenting it at conferences and med schools in the area.

    So, yeah, I would rather have my kids running around the city streets (which I do) than send them to the camp in a known swampy, tick-infested area. I admit that Lyme freaks me out because I’ve seen what it can do. It can also put a damper on a summer even if diagnosed early, because part of the treatment involves staying completely covered up and out of the sun.

  23. Speaking of free range in fiction, my girls and I just watched “Meet Me In St. Louis” last night, and it made me nostalgic for a free-range childhood neighborhood. The little kids come and go as Mom is working in the kitchen. One little girl, about 7, comes sloshing in from swimming (alone). “You should have come swimming with me, Mom.” “Yeah, like that’s all I have to do.” Later the mom asks where the 5-year-old daughter is. She asks the 7-year-old, who doesn’t know. Then Mom says, “hmm, she must still be with the ice man.” It switches to the little girl sitting in the ice delivery truck with a shabby-looking man, telling him about her dolls’ latest troubles. So this is how she spends part of her days, and her parents are OK with this. Can you imagine that today?

  24. We live in Manhattan. Whenever we visit my parents in Massachusetts lately I’m horrified by the fact that we’re “not allowed” to go in the woods. (Yes I realize, at 34, it’s up to me to choose to follow that rule or not.) But the horror stories of all the neighbors with tics and lime disease etc. do impact me. I’ve started to realize my toddler has more of that free/free-range experience at least in terms of exploration, rolling in dirt, climbing trees, at Prospect or Central Park than he does out in conservation land. It’s sad, but I do agree with others lime disease appears to be a real danger, if an unlikely one, not something the media is scaring us into believing and/or paying $$ to protect ourselves against. It’s so terrible though. The single most vivid memories I have of childhood are of playing–by myself, starting at 7– in those same woods. This is making me think I should just cover him up better and perform full-checks on return as described above. Thanks!

  25. I live in Massachusetts, which is definitely tick country. We live across the street from the trailhead leading into miles of woods, and we are in there constantly hiking, mountain biking., walking the dog, etc.. I’ve only had a tick on me twice … and both times I *wasn’t* in the woods, I was at the school playground!

  26. Tara’s got it right, and the writer herself put it right there in her story.

    Get some chickens or guinea fowl and let them roam your backyard. Not only will they eat the bugs, but you get fresh eggs in return, and the lawn will be regularly fertilized.

    @ElizabethAnne: I understand your concern about children being oversexualized, but kids don’t come up with that sort of thing on their own. Normal development usually includes playing doctor or “you show me yours, I’ll show you mine”.

    Fondling or other behavior intended to produce sexual pleasure is extremely rare and usually points to some sort of sexual abuse in the child’s history.

    How to avoid that? You talk to your kids. You explain how their bodies work and why. You teach them that parts of their body are private and not for sharing with others (until they’re old enough to make those decisions), and you teach them that if anyone does anything to them that makes them feel bad, they are to say “NO!” and run to you immediately.

    The philosophy behind Free Range Parenting is to focus on Risk Reduction and Kid Empowerment. Yes, there are bad things in the world, but in trying to prevent ANY chance of ANYTHING bad EVER happening, we do much more damage to our children.

  27. There is a few things you can do to help with the deer ticks to make them easier to deal with.
    –Getting a few chickens will do wonders for cutting down on the bugs in general (and they are funny to watch too!)
    –When the kids go out in the woods make sure they throw their clothes in the washer right away, and go shower down with a scrubby and soap. Most of the microscopic buggers will rinse off and go down the drain.
    (If you live out in the boonies far enough – let the kids do this with a hose out in the yard – It’s more fun!)
    –A good way to get a bunch of them at once (if you stumble into a nest of them) is packing tape. the little ticks stick to the tape and you throw them away. (This is painful if you are hairy)
    –If you are okay with using tick sprays, put it on their clothing around the calf and knees.
    –Spend most of your outdoor woods time when the weather is cooler and the ticks are less active.

    All things come with risks. I’d rather the kids go out and have some fresh air, than worry too much about the ticks. We have had once case of Tick Fever, the first year we lived here, but antibiotics cleared it right up. We didn’t shun the woods.

  28. Hello from Australia. We are city people (yes, I know, you may not call what we have here cities) and I’m glad I don’t have to deal with deer ticks. My friend’s small daughter had Lyme when living in the US and her knees swelled such that she couldn’t walk and the hospital thought she might have a form of arthritis. They were apparently efficient with the testing and a positive result for Lyme was returned.

    Here’s something else to be paranoid about: it seems that DEET and so on is being sprayed about with abandon – and overhead spraying in the past!!!! Do you actually know that long-term use of DEET is harmful. Hard to know whether I would rather take my chances with that or with the ticks.

    I won’t comment further on free-ranging until I have read Lenore’s book – having only seen her through media and a televised lecture.

  29. @Robin, I could not agree with you more. I had never meant to say there was anything wrong with the healthy curiosity children have about their bodies. Of course they may want to see other bodies and compare them to their own.

    @ crowjoy, Perhaps we have different understandings of the word fondle. I believe it has a sexual connotation, so I had never intended to sexualize children, rather I believed the writer was saying it was normal for children to touch each other in a sexual way (which, of course, it isn’t).

  30. nice articles you have very entertaining ! thank you for sharing !

  31. Just a common sense approach to look over everybody before bed is all thats needed. And yes Lyme disease is much better prevented than treated.
    Oh wait another good life lesson. But what age is old enough for children to learn the value of prevention is better than treating? must be 21 like with alcohol

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